Optogenetic tools enable examination of how specific cell types contribute to brain circuit functions. A long-standing question is whether it is possible to independently activate two distinct neural populations in mammalian brain tissue. Such a capability would enable the study of how different synapses or pathways interact to encode information in the brain. Here we describe two channelrhodopsins, Chronos and Chrimson, discovered through sequencing and physiological characterization of opsins from over 100 species of alga. Chrimson’s excitation spectrum is red shifted by 45 nm relative to previous channelrhodopsins and can enable experiments in which red light is preferred. We show minimal visual system–mediated behavioral interference when using Chrimson in neurobehavioral studies in Drosophila melanogaster. Chronos has faster kinetics than previous channelrhodopsins yet is effectively more light sensitive. Together these two reagents enable two-color activation of neural spiking and downstream synaptic transmission in independent neural populations without detectable cross-talk in mouse brain slice.