kottke.org posts about Michael Specter

CRISPR, a cheap and accurate copy/paste for DNANov 13 2015

Michael Specter has a truly fascinating piece in the New Yorker about CRISPR, a relatively new genetic tool for editing genes that geneticists are very excited about.

With CRISPR, scientists can change, delete, and replace genes in any animal, including us. Working mostly with mice, researchers have already deployed the tool to correct the genetic errors responsible for sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and the fundamental defect associated with cystic fibrosis. One group has replaced a mutation that causes cataracts; another has destroyed receptors that H.I.V. uses to infiltrate our immune system.

The story has everything: the cheap copy/paste of DNA, easily editable mice, pig Hitler, "destroyer of worlds" overtones, and an incredible tale of science that could actually revolutionize (or ruin, depending on who you talk to) the world. I was shocked at how easy it is to do genetic research nowadays.

Ordering the genetic parts required to tailor DNA isn't as easy as buying a pair of shoes from Zappos, but it seems to be headed in that direction. Yan turned on the computer at his lab station and navigated to an order form for a company called Integrated DNA Technologies, which synthesizes biological parts. "It takes orders online, so if I want a particular sequence I can have it here in a day or two," he said. That is not unusual. Researchers can now order online almost any biological component, including DNA, RNA, and the chemicals necessary to use them. One can buy the parts required to assemble a working version of the polio virus (it's been done) or genes that, when put together properly, can make feces smell like wintergreen. In Cambridge, I.D.T. often makes same-day deliveries. Another organization, Addgene, was established, more than a decade ago, as a nonprofit repository that houses tens of thousands of ready-made sequences, including nearly every guide used to edit genes with CRISPR. When researchers at the Broad, and at many other institutions, create a new guide, they typically donate a copy to Addgene.

And CRISPR in particular has quickened the pace. A scientist studying lung cancer mutations said of her research:

"In the past, this would have taken the field a decade, and would have required a consortium," Platt said. "With CRISPR, it took me four months to do it by myself."

Also recommended: Radiolab's podcast on CRISPR from back in June.

Memories without all the pesky feelingsJun 19 2014

In the New Yorker, Michael Specter writes generally about the malleability of memory and specifically about Daniela Schiller's research on disassociating people's memories from the feelings they have about them. Simply recalling a memory can change it, and Schiller has found evidence that process can be used to remove the feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear associated with certain memories.

Even so, Schiller entered her field at a fortunate moment. After decades of struggle, scientists had begun to tease out the complex molecular interactions that permit us to form, store, and recall many different types of memories. In 2004, the year Schiller received her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience, from Tel Aviv University, she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship and joined the laboratory of Elizabeth Phelps, at New York University. Phelps and her colleague Joseph LeDoux are among the nation's leading investigators of the neural systems involved in learning, emotion, and memory. By coincidence, that was also the year that the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was released; it explores what happens when two people choose to have all their memories of each other erased. In real life, it's not possible to pluck a single recollection from our brains without destroying others, and Schiller has no desire to do that. She and a growing number of her colleagues have a more ambitious goal: to find a way to rewrite our darkest memories.

"I want to disentangle painful emotion from the memory it is associated with," she said. "Then somebody could recall a terrible trauma, like those my father obviously endured, without the terror that makes it so disabling. You would still have the memory, but not the overwhelming fear attached to it. That would be far more exciting than anything that happens in a movie." Before coming to New York, Schiller had heard -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that the idea for "Eternal Sunshine" originated in LeDoux's lab. It seemed like science fiction and, for the most part, it was. As many neuroscientists were aware, though, the plot also contained more than a hint of truth.

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