Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
One of the great mysteries in biology is how we humans ended up with such large, complex brains. In search of clues, researchers have spent years studying the protein-coding genes activated during neurodevelopment. But some answers may also be hiding in non-coding regions of the human genome, where sequences called regulatory elements increase or decrease the activity of genes.
A fascinating example involves a type of regulatory element called a human accelerated region (HAR). Although “human” is part of this element’s name, it turns out that the genomes of all vertebrates—not just humans—contain the DNA segments now designated as HARs.
In most organisms, HARs show a relatively low rate of mutation, which means these regulatory elements have been highly conserved across species throughout evolutionary time . The big exception is Homo sapiens, in which HARs have exhibited a much higher rate of mutations.
The accelerated rate of HARs mutations observed in humans suggest that, over the course of very long periods of time, these genomic changes might have provided our species with some sort of evolutionary advantage. What might that be? Many have speculated the advantage might involve the brain because HARs are often associated with genes involved in neurodevelopment. Now, in a paper published in the journal Neuron, an NIH-supported team confirms that’s indeed the case .
In the new work, researchers found that about half of the HARs in the human genome influence the activity, or expression, of protein-coding genes in neural cells and tissues during the brain’s development . The researchers say their study—the most comprehensive to date of the 3,171 HARs in the human genome—firmly establishes that this type of regulatory element helps to drive patterns of neurodevelopmental gene activity specific to humans.
Yet to be determined is precisely how HARs affect the development of the human brain. The quest to uncover these details will no doubt shed new light on fundamental questions about the brain, its billions of neurons, and their trillions of interconnections. For example, why does human neural development span decades, longer than the life spans of most primates and other mammals? Answering such questions could also reveal new clues into a range of cognitive and behavioral disorders. In fact, early research has already made tentative links between HARs and neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia .
The latest work was led by Kelly Girskis, Andrew Stergachis, and Ellen DeGennaro, all of whom were in the lab of Christopher Walsh while working on the project. An NIH grantee, Walsh is director of the Allen Discovery Center for Brain Evolution at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, which is supported by the Paul G. Allen Foundation Frontiers Group, and is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Though HARs have been studied since 2006, one of the big challenges in systematically assessing them has been technological. The average length of a HAR is about 269 bases of DNA, but current technologies for assessing function can only easily analyze DNA molecules that span 150 bases or less.
Ryan Doan, who was then in the Walsh Lab, and his colleagues solved the problem by creating a new machine called CaptureMPRA. (MPRA is short for “massively parallel reporter assays.”) This technological advance cleverly barcodes HARs and, more importantly, makes it possible to analyze HARs up to about 500 bases in length.
Using CaptureMPRA technology in tandem with cell culture studies, researchers rolled up their sleeves and conducted comprehensive, full-sequence analyses of more than 3,000 HARs. In their initial studies, primarily in neural cells, they found nearly half of human HARs are active to drive gene expression in cell culture. Of those, 42 percent proved to have increased ability to enhance gene expression compared to their orthologues, or counterparts, in chimpanzees.
Next, the team integrated these data with an existing epigenetic dataset derived from developing human brain cells, as well as additional datasets generated from sorted brain cell types. They found that many HARs appeared to have the ability to increase the activity of protein-coding genes, while a smaller—but very significant—subset of the HARs appeared to be enhancing gene expression specifically in neural progenitor cells, which are responsible for making various neural cell types.
The data suggest that as the human HAR sequences mutated and diverged from other mammals, they increased their ability to enhance or sometimes suppress the activity of certain genes in neural cells. To illustrate this point, the researchers focused on two HARs that appear to interact specifically with a gene referred to as R17. This gene can have highly variable gene expression patterns not only in different human cell types, but also in cells from other vertebrates and non-vertebrates.
In the human cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain that’s responsible for complex behaviors, R17 is expressed only in neural progenitor cells and only at specific time points. The researchers found that R17 slows the progression of neural progenitor cells through the cell cycle. That might seem strange, given the billions of neurons that need to be made in the cortex. But it’s consistent with the biology. In the human, it takes more than 130 days for the cortex to complete development, compared to about seven days in the mouse.
Clearly, to learn more about how the human brain evolved, researchers will need to look for clues in many parts of the genome at once, including its non-coding regions. To help researchers navigate this challenging terrain, the Walsh team has created an online resource displaying their comprehensive HAR data. It will appear soon, under the name HAR Hub, on the University of California Santa Cruz Genome Browser.
 An RNA gene expressed during cortical development evolved rapidly in humans. Pollard KS, Salama SR, Lambert N, Lambot MA, Coppens S, Pedersen JS, Katzman S, King B, Onodera C, Siepel A, Kern AD, Dehay C, Igel H, Ares M Jr, Vanderhaeghen P, Haussler D. Nature. 2006 Sep 14;443(7108):167-72.
 Rewiring of human neurodevelopmental gene regulatory programs by human accelerated regions. Girskis KM, Stergachis AB, DeGennaro EM, Doan RN, Qian X, Johnson MB, Wang PP, Sejourne GM, Nagy MA, Pollina EA, Sousa AMM, Shin T, Kenny CJ, Scotellaro JL, Debo BM, Gonzalez DM, Rento LM, Yeh RC, Song JHT, Beaudin M, Fan J, Kharchenko PV, Sestan N, Greenberg ME, Walsh CA. Neuron. 2021 Aug 25:S0896-6273(21)00580-8.
 Mutations in human accelerated regions disrupt cognition and social behavior. Doan RN, Bae BI, Cubelos B, Chang C, Hossain AA, Al-Saad S, Mukaddes NM, Oner O, Al-Saffar M, Balkhy S, Gascon GG; Homozygosity Mapping Consortium for Autism, Nieto M, Walsh CA. Cell. 2016 Oct 6;167(2):341-354.
Christopher Walsh Laboratory (Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
The spinal cord, as a key part of our body’s central nervous system, contains millions of neurons that actively convey sensory and motor (movement) information to and from the brain. Scientists have long sorted these spinal neurons into what they call “cardinal” classes, a classification system based primarily on the developmental origin of each nerve cell. Now, by taking advantage of the power of single-cell genetic analysis, they’re finding that spinal neurons are more diverse than once thought.
This image helps to visualize the story. Each dot represents the nucleus of a spinal neuron in a mouse; humans have a very similar arrangement. Most of these neurons are involved in the regulation of motor control, but they also differ in important ways. Some are involved in local connections (green), such as those that signal outward to a limb and prompt us to pull away reflexively when we touch painful stimuli, such as a hot frying pan. Others are involved in long-range connections (magenta), relaying commands across spinal segments and even upward to the brain. These enable us, for example, to swing our arms while running to help maintain balance.
It turns out that these two types of spinal neurons also have distinctive genetic signatures. That’s why researchers could label them here in different colors and tell them apart. Being able to distinguish more precisely among spinal neurons will prove useful in identifying precisely which ones are affected by a spinal cord injury or neurodegenerative disease, key information in learning to engineer new tissue to heal the damage.
This image comes from a study, published recently in the journal Science, conducted by an NIH-supported team led by Samuel Pfaff, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA. Pfaff and his colleagues, including Peter Osseward and Marito Hayashi, realized that the various classes and subtypes of neurons in our spines arose over the course of evolutionary time. They reasoned that the most-primitive original neurons would have gradually evolved subtypes with more specialized and diverse capabilities. They thought they could infer this evolutionary history by looking for conserved and then distinct, specialized gene-expression signatures in the different neural subtypes.
The researchers turned to single-cell RNA sequencing technologies to look for important similarities and differences in the genes expressed in nearly 7,000 mouse spinal neurons. They then used this vast collection of genomic data to group the neurons into closely related clusters, in much the same way that scientists might group related organisms into an evolutionary family tree based on careful study of their DNA.
The first major gene expression pattern they saw divided the spinal neurons into two types: sensory-related and motor-related. This suggested to them that one of the first steps in spinal cord evolution may have been a division of labor of spinal neurons into those two fundamentally important roles.
Further analyses divided the sensory-related neurons into excitatory neurons, which make neurons more likely to fire; and inhibitory neurons, which dampen neural firing. Then, the researchers zoomed in on motor-related neurons and found something unexpected. They discovered the cells fell into two distinct molecular groups based on whether they had long-range or short-range connections in the body. Researches were even more surprised when further study showed that those distinct connectivity signatures were shared across cardinal classes.
All of this means that, while previously scientists had to use many different genetic tags to narrow in on a particular type of neuron, they can now do it with just two: a previously known tag for cardinal class and the newly discovered genetic tag for long-range vs. short-range connections.
Not only is this newfound ability a great boon to basic neuroscientists, it also could prove useful for translational and clinical researchers trying to determine which specific neurons are affected by a spinal injury or disease. Eventually, it may even point the way to strategies for regrowing just the right set of neurons to repair serious neurologic problems. It’s a vivid reminder that fundamental discoveries, such as this one, often can lead to unexpected and important breakthroughs with potential to make a real difference in people’s lives.
 Conserved genetic signatures parcellate cardinal spinal neuron classes into local and projection subsets. Osseward PJ 2nd, Amin ND, Moore JD, Temple BA, Barriga BK, Bachmann LC, Beltran F Jr, Gullo M, Clark RC, Driscoll SP, Pfaff SL, Hayashi M. Science. 2021 Apr 23;372(6540):385-393.
What Are the Parts of the Nervous System? (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development/NIH)
Spinal Cord Injury (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Samuel Pfaff (Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
One of the best ways to learn how something works is to understand how it’s built. How it came to be. That’s true not only if you play a guitar or repair motorcycle engines, but also if you study the biological systems that make life possible. Evolutionary studies, comparing the development of these systems across animals and organisms, are now leading to many unexpected biological discoveries and promising possibilities for preventing and treating human disease.
While there are many evolutionary questions to ask, Brenda Bass, a distinguished biochemist at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, has set her sights on a particularly profound one: How has innate immunity evolved through the millennia in all living things, including humans? Innate immunity is the immune system’s frontline defense, the first responders that take control of an emerging infectious situation and, if needed, signal for backup.
Exploring the millennia for clues about innate immunity takes a special team, and Bass has assembled a talented one. It includes her Utah colleague Nels Elde, a geneticist; immunologist Dan Stetson, University of Washington, Seattle; and biochemist Jane Jackman, Ohio State University, Columbus.
With a 2020 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, this hard-working team will embark on studies looking back at 450 million years of evolution: the point in time when animals diverged to develop very distinct methods of innate immune defense . The team members hope to uncover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system, especially those that might be latent but still workable. The researchers will then explore whether their finds can be repurposed not only to boost our body’s natural response to external threats but also to internal threats like cancer.
Bass brings a unique perspective to the project. As a postdoc in the 1980s, she stumbled upon a whole new class of enzymes, called ADARs, that edit RNA . Their function was mysterious at the time. It turns out that ADARs specifically edit a molecule called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). When viruses infect cells in animals, including humans, they make dsRNA, which the innate immune system detects as a sign that a cell has been invaded.
It also turns out that animal cells make their own dsRNA. Over the years, Bass and her lab have identified thousands of dsRNAs made in animal cells—in fact, a significant number of human genes produce dsRNA . Also interesting, ADARs are crucial to marking our own dsRNA as “self” to avoid triggering an immune response when we don’t need it .
Bass and others have found that evolution has produced dramatic differences in the biochemical pathways powering the innate immune system. In vertebrate animals, dsRNA leads to release of the immune chemical interferon, a signaling pathway that invertebrate species don’t have. Instead, in response to detecting dsRNA from an invader, and repelling it, worms and other invertebrates trigger a gene-silencing pathway known as RNA interference, or RNAi.
With the new funding, Bass and team plan to mix and match immune strategies from simple and advanced species, across evolutionary time, to craft an entirely new set of immune tools to fight disease. The team will also build new types of targeted immunotherapies based on the principles of innate immunity. Current immunotherapies, which harness a person’s own immune system to fight disease, target infections, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. But they work through our second-line adaptive immune response, which is a biological system unique to vertebrates.
Bass and her team will first hunt for more molecules like ADARs: innate immune checkpoints, as they refer to them. The name comes from a functional resemblance to the better-known adaptive immune checkpoints PD-1 and CTLA-4, which sparked a revolution in cancer immunotherapy. The team will run several screens that sort molecules successful at activating innate immune responses—both in invertebrates and in mammals—hoping to identify a range of durable new immune switches that evolution skipped over but that might be repurposed today.
Another intriguing direction for this research stems from the observation that decreasing normal levels of ADARs in tumors kickstarts innate immune responses that kill cancer cells . Along these lines, the scientists plan to test newly identified immune switches to look for novel ways to fight cancer where existing approaches have not worked.
Evolution is the founding principle for all of biology—organisms learn from what works to improve their ability to survive. In this case, research to re-examine such lessons and apply them for new uses may help transform bygone evolution into a therapeutic revolution!
 Evolution of adaptive immunity from transposable elements combined with innate immune systems. Koonin EV, Krupovic M. Nat Rev Genet. 2015 Mar;16(3):184-192.
 A developmentally regulated activity that unwinds RNA duplexes. Bass BL, Weintraub H. Cell. 1987 Feb 27;48(4):607-613.
 Mapping the dsRNA World. Reich DP, Bass BL. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2019 Mar 1;11(3):a035352.
 To protect and modify double-stranded RNA – the critical roles of ADARs in development, immunity and oncogenesis. Erdmann EA, Mahapatra A, Mukherjee P, Yang B, Hundley HA. Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2021 Feb;56(1):54-87.
 Loss of ADAR1 in tumours overcomes resistance to immune checkpoint blockade. Ishizuka JJ, Manguso RT, Cheruiyot CK, Bi K, Panda A, et al. Nature. 2019 Jan;565(7737):43-48.
Bass Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)
Elde Lab (University of Utah)
Jackman Lab (Ohio State University, Columbus)
Stetson Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)
Bass/Elde/Jackman/Stetson Project Information (NIH RePORTER)
NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program (Common Fund)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Considerable research is underway around the world to monitor the spread of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That includes the variant B.1.351 (also known as 501Y.V2), which emerged in South Africa towards the end of 2020 [1, 2]. Public health officials in South Africa have been busy tracing the spread of this genomic variant and others across their country. And a new analysis of such data reveals that dozens of distinct coronavirus variants were already circulating in South Africa well before the appearance of B.1.351.
A study of more than 1,300 near-whole genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2, published recently in the journal Nature Medicine, shows there were in fact at least 42 SARS-CoV-2 variants spreading in South Africa within the pandemic’s first six months in that country . Among them were 16 variants that had never before been described. Most of the single-letter changes carried by these variants didn’t change the virus in important ways and didn’t rise to significant frequency. But the findings come as another critical reminder of the value of genomic surveillance to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to identify any potentially worrisome new variants and to inform measures to get this devastating pandemic under control.
SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in South Africa on March 5, 2020, in a traveler returning from Italy. By November 2020, despite considerable efforts to slow the spread, more than 785,000 people in South Africa were infected, accounting for about half of all reported COVID-19 cases on the African continent.
Recognizing the importance of genomic surveillance, researchers led by Houriiyah Tegally and Tulio de Oliveira, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, wasted no time in producing 1,365 near-complete SARS-CoV-2 genomes by mid-September, near the end of the coronavirus’s first peak in the country. Those samples had been collected in hundreds of clinics over the course of the pandemic in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces, offering a broad picture of the spread and emergence of new variants across the country.
The data revealed three main variants, dubbed B.1.1.54, B.1.1.56, and C.1, that were responsible for 42 percent of all the infections in South Africa’s first wave. Of the 16 newly described variants, most carried single-letter changes that haven’t been identified in other countries.
The majority of changes were what scientists refer to as “synonymous,” meaning that they don’t change the structure or function of any of the virus’s essential proteins. The exception is the newly identified C.1, which includes 16 single-letter changes compared to the original sequence from Wuhan, China. One of those 16 changes swaps a single amino acid for another on SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein. That’s notable because the spike protein is a key target of antibodies and also is essential to the virus’s ability to infect human cells.
In fact, four of the most prevalent variants in South Africa all carry this same mutation. The researchers also saw three other changes that would alter the spike protein in different ways, although the significance of these for viral spread and our efforts to stop it isn’t yet clear.
Importantly, the data show that the bulk of introductions to South Africa happened early on, before lockdown and travel restrictions were implemented in late March. Subsequently, much of the spread within South Africa stemmed from hospital outbreaks. For example, an outbreak of the C.1 variant in the North West Province in April ultimately led this variant to become the most geographically widespread in South Africa by the end of August. Meanwhile, an earlier identified South African-specific variant, B.1.106, first identified in April, vanished altogether after outbreaks were controlled in KwaZulu-Natal Province, where the researchers reside.
Genomic surveillance has remarkable power for understanding the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and tracking the dynamics of its transmission. Tegally and de Oliveira’s team notes that this type of intensive genomic surveillance now can be used on a large scale across Africa and around the world to identify new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and to develop timely measures to control the spread of the virus. They’re now working with the African CDC to expand genomic surveillance across Africa .
Such genomic surveillance was crucial in the subsequent identification of the B.1.351 variant in South Africa that we’ve been hearing so much about, with its potential to evade our current treatments and vaccines. By picking up on such concerning mutations early through genomic surveillance and understanding how the virus is spreading over time and space, the hope is we’ll be better informed and more adept in our efforts to get this pandemic under control.
 Emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 Emergence and rapid spread of a new severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) lineage with multiple spike mutations in South Africa. Tegally H, Wilkinson E, Giovanetti M, Iranzadeh A, Bhiman J, Williamson C, de Oliveira T, et al. medRxiv 2020 Dec 22.
 Sixteen novel lineages of SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa. Tegally H, Wilkinson E, Lessells RJ, Giandhari J, Pillay S, Msomi N, Mlisana K, Bhiman JN, von Gottberg A, Walaza S, Fonseca V, Allam M, Ismail A, Glass AJ, Engelbrecht S, Van Zyl G, Preiser W, Williamson C, Petruccione F, Sigal A, Gazy I, Hardie D, Hsiao NY, Martin D, York D, Goedhals D, San EJ, Giovanetti M, Lourenço J, Alcantara LCJ, de Oliveira T. Nat Med. 2021 Feb 2.
 Accelerating genomics-based surveillance for COVID-19 response in Africa. Tessema SK, Inzaule SC, Christoffels A, Kebede Y, de Oliveira T, Ouma AEO, Happi CT, Nkengasong JN.Lancet Microbe. 2020 Aug 18.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Houriiyah Tegally (University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa)
Tulio de Oliveira (University of KwaZulu-Natal)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
In seeking the biological answer to the question of what it means to be human, the brain’s cerebral cortex is a good place to start. This densely folded, outer layer of grey matter, which is vastly larger in Homo sapiens than in other primates, plays an essential role in human consciousness, language, and reasoning.
Now, an NIH-funded team has pinpointed a key set of genes—found only in humans—that may help explain why our species possesses such a large cerebral cortex. Experimental evidence shows these genes prolong the development of stem cells that generate neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn enables the human brain to produce more mature cortical neurons and, thus, build a bigger cerebral cortex than our fellow primates.
That sounds like a great advantage for humans! But there’s a downside. Researchers found the same genomic changes that facilitated the expansion of the human cortex may also render our species more susceptible to certain rare neurodevelopmental disorders.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Everybody knows that it’s important to stay alert behind the wheel or while out walking on the bike path. But our ability to react appropriately to sudden dangers is influenced by whether we feel momentarily tired, distracted, or anxious. How is it that the brain can transition through such different states of consciousness while performing the same routine task, even as its basic structure and internal wiring remain unchanged?
A team of NIH-funded researchers may have found an important clue in zebrafish, a popular organism for studying how the brain works. Using a powerful new method that allowed them to find and track brain circuits tied to alertness, the researchers discovered that this mental state doesn’t work like an on/off switch. Rather, alertness involves several distinct brain circuits working together to bring the brain to attention. As shown in the video above that was taken at cellular resolution, different types of neurons (green) secrete different kinds of chemical messengers across the zebrafish brain to affect the transition to alertness. The messengers shown are: serotonin (red), acetylcholine (blue-green), and dopamine and norepinephrine (yellow).
What’s also fascinating is the researchers found that many of the same neuronal cell types and brain circuits are essential to alertness in zebrafish and mice, despite the two organisms being only distantly related. That suggests these circuits are conserved through evolution as an early fight-or-flight survival behavior essential to life, and they are therefore likely to be important for controlling alertness in people too. If correct, it would tell us where to look in the brain to learn about alertness not only while doing routine stuff but possibly for understanding dysfunctional brain states, ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.
Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support:
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
It’s not every day that an amateur guitar picker gets to play a duet with an internationally renowned classical cellist. But that was my thrill this week as I joined Yo-Yo Ma in a creative interpretation of the traditional song, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Our short jam session capped off Mr. Ma’s appearance as this year’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture.
The event, which counts The Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, and Atul Gawande among its distinguished alumni, this year took the form of a conversation on the intersection of music and science—and earned a standing ovation from a packed house of researchers, patients, and staff here on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, MD.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
If you go back far enough, the ancestors of all people trace to Africa. That much is clear. We are all Africans. But there’s been considerable room for debate about exactly when and how many times modern humans made their way out of Africa to take up residence in distant locations throughout the world. It’s also unclear what evolutionary or other factors might have driven our human ancestors to set off on such a perilous and uncertain journey (or journeys) in the first place.
By analyzing 787 newly sequenced complete human genomes representing more than 280 diverse and understudied populations, three new studies—two of which received NIH funding—now help to fill in some of those missing pages of our evolutionary history. The genomic evidence suggests that the earliest human inhabitants of Eurasia came from Africa and began to diverge genetically at least 50,000 years ago. While the new studies differ somewhat in their conclusions, the findings also lend support to the notion that our modern human ancestors dispersed out of Africa primarily in a single migratory event. If an earlier and ultimately failed voyage occurred, it left little trace in the genomes of people alive today.