Creative Minds: Modeling Neurobiological Disorders in Stem Cells

Feng Zhang

Feng Zhang

Most neurological and psychiatric disorders are profoundly complex, involving a variety of environmental and genetic factors. Researchers around the world have worked with patients and their families to identify hundreds of possible genetic leads to learn what goes wrong in autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions. The great challenge now is to begin examining this growing cache of information more systematically to understand the mechanism by which these gene variants contribute to disease risk—potentially providing important information that will someday lead to methods for diagnosis and treatment.

Meeting this profoundly difficult challenge will require a special set of laboratory tools. That’s where Feng Zhang comes into the picture. Zhang, a bioengineer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, has made significant contributions to a number of groundbreaking research technologies over the past decade, including optogenetics (using light to control brain cells), and CRISPR/Cas9, which researchers now routinely use to edit genomes in the lab [1,2].

Zhang has received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to develop new tools to study multiple gene variants that might be involved in a neurological or psychiatric disorder. Zhang draws his inspiration from nature, and the microscopic molecules that various organisms have developed through the millennia to survive. CRISPR/Cas9, for instance, is a naturally occurring bacterial defense system that Zhang and others have adapted into a gene-editing tool.

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Creative Minds: Building the RNA Toolbox


Caption: Genetically identical mice. The Agouti gene is active in the yellow mouse and inactive in the brown mouse.
Credit: Dana Dolinoy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Randy Jirtle, Duke University, Durham, NC

Step inside the lab of Dana Dolinoy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and you’re sure to hear conversations that include the rather strange word “agouti” (uh-goo-tee). In this context, it’s a name given to a strain of laboratory mice that arose decades ago from a random mutation in the Agouti gene, which is normally expressed only transiently in hair follicles. The mutation causes the gene to be turned on, or expressed, continuously in all cell types, producing mice that are yellow, obese, and unusually prone to developing diabetes and cancer. As it turns out, these mutant mice and the gene they have pointed to are more valuable than ever today because they offer Dolinoy and other researchers an excellent model for studying the rapidly emerging field of epigenomics.

The genome of the mouse, just as for the human, is the complete DNA instruction book; it contains the coding information for building the proteins that carry out a variety of functions in a cell. But modifications to the DNA determine its function, and these are collectively referred to as the epigenome. The epigenome is made up of chemical tags and proteins that can attach to the DNA and direct such actions as turning genes on or off, thereby controlling the production of proteins in particular cells. These tags have different patterns in each cell type, helping to explain, for example, why a kidney and a skin cell can behave so differently when they share the same DNA.

Some types of genes, including Agouti, are particularly vulnerable to epigenomic effects. In fact, Dolinoy has discovered that exposing normal, wild-type (brown) mice to certain chemicals and dietary factors during pregnancy can switch on the Agouti gene in their developing offspring, turning their coats yellow and their health poor. Dolinoy says these experiments raise much larger questions: If researchers discover populations of humans that have been exposed to lifestyle or environmental factors that modify their epigenomes in ways that may possibly contribute to risk for certain diseases, can the modification be passed on to their children and grandchildren (referred to as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, a controversial topic)? If so, how can we develop the high-precision tools needed to better understand and perhaps even reduce such risks? The University of Michigan researcher received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to undertake that challenge.

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Creative Minds: Making a Miniature Colon in the Lab

Gut on a Chip

Caption: Top down view of gut tissue monolayer grown on an engineered scaffold, which guides the cells into organized crypts structures similar to the conformation of crypts in the human colon. Areas between the circles represent the flat lumenal surface.
Credit: Nancy Allbritton, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

When Nancy Allbritton was a child in Marksville, LA, she designed and built her own rabbit hutches. She also once took apart an old TV set to investigate the cathode ray tube inside before turning the wooden frame that housed the TV into a bookcase, which, by the way, she still has. Allbritton’s natural curiosity for how things work later inspired her to earn advanced degrees in medicine, medical engineering, and medical physics, while also honing her skills in cell biology and analytical chemistry.

Now, Allbritton applies her wide-ranging research background to design cutting-edge technologies in her lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In one of her boldest challenges yet, supported by a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, Allbritton and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators have set out to engineer a functional model of a large intestine, or colon, on a microfabricated chip about the size of a dime.

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