Big Science Reverse Engineers the Brain
Big Science coordinates the efforts of a large team of scientists to revolutionize the field. For example, the Human Genome Project was a multi-million dollar, 13 year project whose goals included sequencing the vast human genome and identifying the 20,000+ genes in human DNA. This large-scale project remains a hallmark of the strength of collaborative works as scientists worldwide have benefited from the knowledge it generated..
In the spirit of collaborative science Paul Allen, a cofounder of Microsoft, combined his background as a computer programmer and his interest in neuroscience to create the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington. From a series of brainstorming sessions with world-renowned scientists, Caltech’s Dr. David Anderson’s idea emerged as a favorite: the institute’s Big Science project would be mapping gene expression in the mouse brain. This project would have a large impact as it would initiate the process of reverse engineering –or, breaking down to understand– the brain.
Every cell within an organism has the potential to express the same 20,000+ genes, but in different areas of the body, there is differential gene expression. Simply put, DNA must be transcribed to messenger RNA before it is translated to an expressed protein product. It is this difference in expression that makes brain cells different from lung cells. The Allen Institute created the Allen Brian Atlas to be composed of mouse brain slices stained with an RNA solution specific to a particular RNA sequence. This would allow scientists to identify what genes are being expressed in select areas of the brain. With the benefit of computer science, Paul Allen’s big science project created tools for neuroscientists that will facilitate a plethora of other projects.
Since its completion in 2006, the mouse brain atlas has been used to identify genes that play a role in the development of eating and memory disorders as well as multiple sclerosis in humans. The success of this project led the Allen Brain Institute to undertake a second task of creating a similar atlas of the human brain. Since the beginning of its online availability in 2010, the growing database has yielded many results.
But why does any of this matter to the general public? From the Allen Institute’s work, scientists have identified that serotonin (a neurotransmitter) is expressed in two brain regions not previously studied. Serotonin is targeted by many antidepressants (e.g. Prozac and Zoloft) by an unknown means of action. With this new information about brain function, scientist can better understand the mechanism. This is but one small example of the value of collaborative research projects.