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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Snapshots of Life: A Kaleidoscope of Worms

C. elegans

Credit: Adam Brown and David Biron, University of Chicago

What might appear to be a view inside an unusual kaleidoscope is actually a laboratory plate full of ravenous roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) as seen through a microscope. Tens of thousands of worms (black), each about 1 millimeter in length at adulthood, are grazing on a field of bacteria beneath them. The yellow is a jelly-like growth medium called agar that feeds the bacteria, and the orange along the borders was added to enhance the sunburst effect.

The photo was snapped and stylized by NIH training grantee Adam Brown, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the lab of David Biron at the University of Chicago. Brown uses C. elegans to study the neurotransmitter serotonin, a popular drug target in people receiving treatment for depression and other psychiatric disorders. This tiny, soil-dwelling worm is a go-to model organism for neuroscientists because of its relative simplicity, short life spans, genetic malleability, and complete cell-fate map. By manipulating the different components of the serotonin-signaling system in C. elegans, Brown and his colleagues hope to better understand the most basic circuitry in the central nervous system that underlies decision making, in this case choosing to feed or forage.

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