Genetically encoded optical tools have revolutionized modern biology by allowing detection and control of biological processes with exceptional spatiotemporal precision and sensitivity. Natural photoreceptors provide researchers with a vast source of molecular templates for engineering of fluorescent proteins, biosensors, and optogenetic tools. Here, we give a brief overview of natural photoreceptors and their mechanisms of action. We then discuss fluorescent proteins and biosensors developed from light-oxygen-voltage-sensing (LOV) domains and phytochromes as well as their properties and applications. These fluorescent tools possess unique characteristics not achievable with green fluorescent protein-like probes, including near-infrared fluorescence, independence of oxygen, small size, and photosensitizer activity. We next provide an overview of available optogenetic tools of various origins, such as LOV and BLUF (blue-light-utilizing flavin adenine dinucleotide) domains, cryptochromes, and phytochromes, enabling control of versatile cellular processes. We analyze the principles of their function and practical requirements for use. We focus mainly on optical tools with demonstrated use beyond bacteria, with a specific emphasis on their applications in mammalian cells. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Biochemistry Volume 84 is June 02, 2015. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/catalog/pubdates.aspx for revised estimates.
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