Ion channels are gated by a variety of stimuli, including ligands, voltage, membrane tension, temperature, and even light. Natural gates can be altered and augmented using synthetic chemistry and molecular biology to develop channels with completely new functional properties. Light-sensitive channels are particularly attractive because optical manipulation offers a high degree of spatial and temporal control. Over the last few decades, several channels have been successfully rendered responsive to light, including the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, gramicidin A, a voltage-gated potassium channel, an ionotropic glutamate receptor, alpha-hemolysin, and a mechanosensitive channel. Very recently, naturally occurring light-gated cation channels have been discovered. This review covers the molecular principles that guide the engineering of light-gated ion channels for applications in biology and medicine.