CRISPRing the Neanderthal’s mind

Neanderthal_minibrains

Sapiens vs Neanderthalized brain organoids (credit A. Muotri)

Taking a peek into the brain of a Neanderthal specimen would be a dream for whoever is interested in the evolution of human intelligence. To get an idea of the cognitive abilities of our closest relatives, so far, anthropologists and neuroscientists could only study the fossil and archaeological record, but a new exciting frontier is opening up where paleogenetics meets organoids and CRISPR technologies. By combining these approaches, two labs are independently developing mini-brains from human pluripotent stem cells edited to carry Neanderthal mutations. Alysson Muotri did it at UC San Diego, as Jon Cohen reported in Science last week. Svante Pääbo is doing it at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, as revealed by The Guardian in May. Forget George Church’s adventurous thoughts on cloning Neanderthals. The purpose here is to answer one of the most captivating questions ever asked: did the mind of these ancient men and women, who interbred with our sapiens ancestors before going extinct, work differently from ours? Last but not least, with respect to the ethics of experimenting with mini-brains, don’t miss the perspective published in Nature.

The CRISPR world we live in

crispr distribution

“As of January 2018 Addgene has distributed more than 100,000 CRISPR plasmids to 3,400 laboratories worldwide. More than 6,300 CRISPR-related plasmids have been developed by over 330 academic labs and deposited into Addgene’s collection. Geographically, new CRISPR plasmids have been developed and deposited to Addgene’s collection from the Americas (led by the United States), Europe (led by Denmark), Asia (led by China), and Oceania (led by Australia), and shipped to some 75 countries.” [Reference: Enabling the Rise of a CRISPR World, Caroline M. LaManna and Rodolphe Barrangou, The CRISPR Journal, Vol. 1, n. 3, 2018]

CRISPR sci-fi, welcome to the post-identity world

changeagent

It’s 2045; the Gene Revolution is changing humanity. The US has lost its technological crown, and the biotech capital of the world is now Singapore. In Change Agent, the techno-thriller by Daniel Suarez, the night is lit by bioluminescent trees, children play with neotenic pets, drug addicts enjoy custom highs, specialized for their individual DNA. International law prohibits human edits beyond those designed to correct a short UN-approved list of genetic diseases. But a few years after ratification, the UN Treaty on Genetic Modification is already a dead letter. Continue reading