Maud Newton | Longreads | June 2015 | 24 minutes (5,889 words)
BBC America’s Orphan Black seems so immediate, so plausible, so unfuturistic, that Cosima Herter, the show’s science consultant, is used to being asked whether human reproductive cloning could be happening in a lab somewhere right now. If so, we wouldn’t know, she says. It’s illegal in so many countries, no one would want to talk about it. But one thing is clear, she told me, when we met to talk about her work on the show: in our era of synthetic biology — of Craig Venter’s biological printer and George Church’s standardized biological parts, of three-parent babies and of treatment for cancer that involves reengineered viruses— genetics as we have conceived of it is already dead. We don’t have the language for what is emerging. Read more…
A look at the 59-year-old Microsoft cofounder who has invested $500 million into the Allen Institute for Brain Science with the goal of decoding how the human brain works:
Four years later six brains have been donated and four analyzed to some degree. The project is due to be finished this year, but the first brain images, put online in 2010, are already yielding scientific results. So far, the gene expression from the first two human brains in the new atlas varies only a little, yielding hope that scientists will be able to understand some of what it all means.
How might this work? A young University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist named Bradley Voytek used software to match words that frequently appeared together in the scientific literature with matches of where genes are expressed in the Allen atlas. For instance, he found that scientists studying serotonin, the neurotransmitter hit by Prozac and Zoloft, were ignoring two brain areas where the chemical was expressed in their research. It might even play a role in migraines. This data-driven approach led to 800 new ideas about how the brain may work that scientists can now test, leading to hope that computational methods can help decipher the computer in our heads.