A “golden era” to study the brain

As an undergraduate, Mitch Murdock was a rare science-humanities double major, specializing in both English and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University. Today, as a doctoral student in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, he sees obvious ways that his English education expanded his horizons as a neuroscientist.

“One of my favorite parts of English was trying to explore interiority, and how people have really complicated experiences inside their heads,” Murdock explains. “I was excited about trying to bridge that gap between internal experiences of the world and that actual biological substrate of the brain.”

Though he can see those connections now, it wasn’t until after Yale that Murdock became interested in brain sciences. As an undergraduate, he was in a traditional molecular biology lab. He even planned to stay there after graduation as a research technician; fortunately, though, he says his advisor Ron Breaker encouraged him to explore the field. That’s how Murdock ended up in a new lab run by Conor Liston, an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, who studies how factors such as stress and sleep regulate the modeling of brain circuits.

It was in Liston’s lab that Murdock was first exposed to neuroscience and began to see the brain as the biological basis of the philosophical questions about experience and emotion that interested him. “It was really in his lab where I thought, ‘Wow, this is so cool. I have to do a PhD studying neuroscience,’” Murdock laughs.

During his time as a research technician, Murdock examined the impact of chronic stress on brain activity in mice. Specifically, he was interested in ketamine, a fast-acting antidepressant prone to being abused, with the hope that better understanding how ketamine works will help scientists find safer alternatives. He focused on dendritic spines, small organelles attached to neurons that help transmit electrical signals between neurons and provide the physical substrate for memory storage. His findings, Murdock explains, suggested that ketamine works by recovering dendritic spines that can be lost after periods of chronic stress.

After three years at Weill Cornell, Murdock decided to pursue doctoral studies in neuroscience, hoping to continue some of the work he started with Liston. He chose MIT because of the research being done on dendritic spines in the lab of Elly Nedivi, the William R. (1964) and Linda R. Young Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Once again, though, the opportunity to explore a wider set of interests fortuitously led Murdock to a new passion. During lab rotations at the beginning of his PhD program, Murdock spent time shadowing a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who was working with Alzheimer’s disease patients.

“Everyone knows that Alzheimer’s doesn’t have a cure. But I realized that, really, if you have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s very little that can be done,” he says. “That was a big wake-up call for me.”

After that experience, Murdock strategically planned his remaining lab rotations, eventually settling into the lab of Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience and the director of the Picower Institute. For the past five years, Murdock has worked with Tsai on various strands of Alzheimer’s research.

In one project, for example, members of the Tsai lab have shown how certain kinds of non-invasive light and sound stimulation induce brain activity that can improve memory loss in mouse models of Alzheimer’s. Scientists think that, during sleep, small movements in blood vessels drive spinal fluid into the brain, which, in turn, flushes out toxic metabolic waste. Murdock’s research suggests that certain kinds of stimulation might drive a similar process, flushing out waste that can exacerbate memory loss.

Much of his work is focused on the activity of single cells in the brain. Are certain neurons or types of neurons genetically predisposed to degenerate, or do they break down randomly? Why do certain subtypes of cells appear to be dysfunctional earlier on in the course of Alzheimer’s disease? How do changes in blood flow in vascular cells affect degeneration? All of these questions, Murdock believes, will help scientists better understand the causes of Alzheimer’s, which will translate eventually into developing cures and therapies.

To answer these questions, Murdock relies on new single-cell sequencing techniques that he says have changed the way we think about the brain. “This has been a big advance for the field, because we know there are a lot of different cell types in the brain, and we think that they might contribute differentially to Alzheimer’s disease risk,” says Murdock. “We can’t think of the brain as only about neurons.”

Murdock says that that kind of “big-picture” approach — thinking about the brain as a compilation of many different cell types that are all interacting — is the central tenet of his research. To look at the brain in the kind of detail that approach requires, Murdock works with Ed Boyden, the Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology, a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Working with Boyden has allowed Murdock to use new technologies such as expansion microscopy and genetically encoded sensors to aid his research.

That kind of new technology, he adds, has helped blow the field wide open. “This is such a cool time to be a neuroscientist because the tools available now make this a golden era to study the brain.” That rapid intellectual expansion applies to the study of Alzheimer’s as well, including newly understood connections between the immune system and Alzheimer’s — an area in which Murdock says he hopes to continue after graduation.

Right now, though, Murdock is focused on a review paper synthesizing some of the latest research. Given the mountains of new Alzheimer’s work coming out each year, he admits that synthesizing all the data is a bit “crazy,” but he couldn’t be happier to be in the middle of it. “There’s just so much that we are learning about the brain from these new techniques, and it’s just so exciting.”

Aging Brain Initiative awards fund five new ideas to study, fight neurodegeneration

Neurodegenerative diseases are defined by an increasingly widespread and debilitating death of nervous system cells, but they also share other grim characteristics: Their cause is rarely discernible and they have all eluded cures. To spur fresh, promising approaches and to encourage new experts and expertise to join the field, MIT’s Aging Brain Initiative (ABI) this month awarded five seed grants after a competition among labs across the Institute.

Founded in 2015 by nine MIT faculty members, the ABI promotes research, symposia, and related activities to advance fundamental insights that can lead to clinical progress against neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, with an age-related onset. With an emphasis on spurring research at an early stage before it is established enough to earn more traditional funding, the ABI derives support from philanthropic gifts.

“Solving the mysteries of how health declines in the aging brain and turning that knowledge into effective tools, treatments, and technologies is of the utmost urgency given the millions of people around the world who suffer with no meaningful treatment options,” says ABI director and co-founder Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “We were very pleased that many groups across MIT were eager to contribute their expertise and creativity to that goal. From here, five teams will be able to begin testing their innovative ideas and the impact they could have.”

To address the clinical challenge of accurately assessing cognitive decline during Alzheimer’s disease progression and healthy aging, a team led by Thomas Heldt, associate professor of electrical and biomedical engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, proposes to use artificial intelligence tools to bring diagnostics based on eye movements during cognitive tasks to everyday consumer electronics such as smartphones and tablets. By moving these capabilities to common at-home platforms, the team, which also includes EECS Associate Professor Vivian Sze, hopes to increase monitoring beyond what can only be intermittently achieved with high-end specialized equipment and dedicated staffing in specialists’ offices. The team will pilot their technology in a small study at Boston Medical Center in collaboration with neurosurgeon James Holsapple.

Institute Professor Ann Graybiel’s lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research will test the hypothesis that mutations on a specific gene may lead to the early emergence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) pathology in the striatum. That’s a a brain region crucial for motivation and movement that is directly and severely impacted by other neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, but that has largely been unstudied in Alzheimer’s. By editing the mutations into normal and AD-modeling mice, Research Scientist Ayano Matsushima and Graybiel hope to determine whether and how pathology, such as the accumulation of amyloid proteins, may result. Determining that could provide new insight into the progression of disease and introduce a new biomarker in a region that virtually all other studies have overlooked.

Numerous recent studies have highlighted a potential role for immune inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. A team led by Gloria Choi, the Mark Hyman Jr. Associate Professor in BCS and The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, will track one potential source of such activity by determining whether the brain’s meninges, which envelop the brain, becomes a means for immune cells activated by gut bacteria to circulate near the brain, where they may release signaling molecules that promote Alzheimer’s pathology. Working in mice, Choi’s lab will test whether such activity is prone to increase in Alzheimer’s and whether it contributes to disease.

A collaboration led by Peter Dedon, the Singapore Professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering, will explore whether Alzheimer’s pathology is driven by dysregulation of transfer RNAs (tRNAs) and the dozens of natural tRNA modifications in the epitranscriptome, which play a key role in the process by which proteins are assembled based on genetic instructions. With Benjamin Wolozin of Boston University, Sherif Rashad of Tohoku University in Japan, and Thomas Begley of the State University of New York at Albany, Dedon will assess how the tRNA pool and epitranscriptome may differ in Alzheimer’s model mice and whether genetic instructions mistranslated because of tRNA dysregulation play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.

With her seed grant, Ritu Raman, the d’Arbeloff Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is launching an investigation of possible disruption of intercellular messages in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a terminal condition in which motor neuron causes loss of muscle control. Equipped with a new tool to finely sample interstitial fluid within tissues, Raman’s team will be able to monitor and compare cell-cell signaling in models of the junction between nerve and muscle. These models will be engineered from stem cells derived from patients with ALS. By studying biochemical signaling at the junction the lab hopes to discover new targets that could be therapeutically modified.

Major support for the seed grants, which provide each lab with $100,000, came from generous gifts by David Emmes SM ’76; Kathleen SM ’77, PhD ’86 and Miguel Octavio; the Estate of Margaret A. Ridge-Pappis, wife of the late James Pappis ScD ’59; the Marc Haas Foundation; and the family of former MIT President Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ‘60, with additional funding from many annual fund donors to the Aging Brain Initiative Fund.

CRISPR makes several Discovery of the Decade lists

As we reach milestones in time, it’s common to look back and review what we learned. A number of media outlets, including National Geographic, NPR, The Hill, Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian Magazine, Nature, Mental Floss, CNBC, and others, recognized the profound impact of genome editing, adding CRISPR to their discovery of the decade lists.

“In 2013, [CRISPR] was used for genome editing in a eukaryotic cell, forever altering the course of biotechnology and, ultimately our relationship with our DNA.”
— Popular Mechanics

It’s rare for a molecular system to become a household name, but in less than a decade, CRISPR has done just that. McGovern Investigator Feng Zhang played a key role in leveraging CRISPR, an immune system found originally in prokaryotic – bacterial and archaeal – cells, into a broadly customizable toolbox for genomic manipulation in eukaryotic (animal and plant) cells. CRISPR allows scientists to easily and quickly make changes to genomes, has revolutionized the biomedical sciences, and has major implications for control of infectious disease, agriculture, and treatment of genetic disorders.

New CRISPR platform expands RNA editing capabilities

CRISPR-based tools have revolutionized our ability to target disease-linked genetic mutations. CRISPR technology comprises a growing family of tools that can manipulate genes and their expression, including by targeting DNA with the enzymes Cas9 and Cas12 and targeting RNA with the enzyme Cas13. This collection offers different strategies for tackling mutations. Targeting disease-linked mutations in RNA, which is relatively short-lived, would avoid making permanent changes to the genome. In addition, some cell types, such as neurons, are difficult to edit using CRISPR/Cas9-mediated editing, and new strategies are needed to treat devastating diseases that affect the brain.

McGovern Institute Investigator and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard core member Feng Zhang and his team have now developed one such strategy, called RESCUE (RNA Editing for Specific C to U Exchange), described in the journal Science.

Zhang and his team, including first co-authors Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg (both now McGovern Fellows), made use of a deactivated Cas13 to guide RESCUE to targeted cytosine bases on RNA transcripts, and used a novel, evolved, programmable enzyme to convert unwanted cytosine into uridine — thereby directing a change in the RNA instructions. RESCUE builds on REPAIR, a technology developed by Zhang’s team that changes adenine bases into inosine in RNA.

RESCUE significantly expands the landscape that CRISPR tools can target to include modifiable positions in proteins, such as phosphorylation sites. Such sites act as on/off switches for protein activity and are notably found in signaling molecules and cancer-linked pathways.

“To treat the diversity of genetic changes that cause disease, we need an array of precise technologies to choose from. By developing this new enzyme and combining it with the programmability and precision of CRISPR, we were able to fill a critical gap in the toolbox,” says Zhang, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. Zhang also has appointments in MIT’s departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering.

Expanding the reach of RNA editing to new targets

The previously developed REPAIR platform used the RNA-targeting CRISPR/Cas13 to direct the active domain of an RNA editor, ADAR2, to specific RNA transcripts where it could convert the nucleotide base adenine to inosine, or letters A to I. Zhang and colleagues took the REPAIR fusion, and evolved it in the lab until it could change cytosine to uridine, or C to U.

RESCUE can be guided to any RNA of choice, then perform a C-to-U edit through the evolved ADAR2 component of the platform. The team took the new platform into human cells, showing that they could target natural RNAs in the cell as well as 24 clinically relevant mutations in synthetic RNAs. They then further optimized RESCUE to reduce off-target editing, while minimally disrupting on-target editing.

New targets in sight

Expanded targeting by RESCUE means that sites regulating activity and function of many proteins through post-translational modifications, such as phosphorylation, glycosylation, and methylation can now be more readily targeted for editing.

A major advantage of RNA editing is its reversibility, in contrast to changes made at the DNA level, which are permanent. Thus, RESCUE could be deployed transiently in situations where a modification may be desirable temporarily, but not permanently. To demonstrate this, the team showed that in human cells, RESCUE can target specific sites in the RNA encoding β-catenin, that are known to be phosphorylated on the protein product, leading to a temporary increase in β-catenin activation and cell growth. If such a change was made permanently, it could predispose cells to uncontrolled cell growth and cancer, but by using RESCUE, transient cell growth could potentially stimulate wound healing in response to acute injuries.

The researchers also targeted a pathogenic gene variant, APOE4.  The APOE4 allele has consistently emerged as a genetic risk factor for the development of late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Isoform APOE4 differs from APOE2, which is not a risk factor, by just two differences (both C in APOE4 vs. U in APOE2). Zhang and colleagues introduced the risk-associated APOE4 RNA into cells, and showed that RESCUE can convert its signature C’s to an APOE2 sequence, essentially converting a risk to a non-risk variant.

To facilitate additional work that will push RESCUE toward the clinic as well as enable researchers to use RESCUE as a tool to better understand disease-causing mutations, the Zhang lab plans to share the RESCUE system broadly, as they have with previously developed CRISPR tools. The technology will be freely available for academic research through the non-profit plasmid repository Addgene. Additional information can be found on the Zhang lab’s webpage.

Support for the study was provided by The Phillips Family; J. and P. Poitras; the Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research; Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research.; Robert Metcalfe; David Cheng; a NIH F30 NRSA 1F30-CA210382 to Omar Abudayyeh. F.Z. is a New York Stem Cell Foundation–Robertson Investigator. F.Z. is supported by NIH grants (1R01-HG009761, 1R01-222 MH110049, and 1DP1-HL141201); the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; the New York Stem Cell Foundation and G. Harold and Leila Mathers Foundations.

Scientists engineer new CRISPR platform for DNA targeting

A team that includes the scientist who first harnessed the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 and other systems for genome editing of eukaryotic organisms, including animals and plants, has engineered another CRISPR system, called Cas12b. The new system offers improved capabilities and options when compared to CRISPR-Cas9 systems.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, Feng Zhang and colleagues at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, with co-author Eugene Koonin at the National Institutes of Health, demonstrate that the new enzyme can be engineered to target and precisely nick or edit the genomes of human cells. The high target specificity and small size of Cas12b from Bacillus hisashii (BhCas12b) as compared to Cas9 (SpCas9), makes this new system suitable for in vivo applications. The team is now making CRISPR-Cas12b widely available for research.

The team previously identified Cas12b (then known as C2c1) as one of three promising new CRISPR enzymes in 2015, but faced a hurdle: Because Cas12b comes from thermophilic bacteria — which live in hot environments such as geysers, hot springs, volcanoes, and deep sea hydrothermal vents — the enzyme naturally only works at temperatures higher than human body temperature.

“We searched for inspirations from nature,” Zhang said. “We wanted to create a version of Cas12b that could operate at lower temperatures, so we scanned thousands of bacterial genetic sequences, looking in bacteria that could thrive in the lower temperatures of mammalian environments.”

Through a combination of exploration of natural diversity and rational engineering of promising candidate enzymes, they generated a version of Cas12b capable of efficiently editing genomes in primary human T cells, an important initial step for therapeutics that target or leverage the immune system.

“This is further evidence that there are many useful CRISPR systems waiting to be discovered,” said Jonathan Strecker, a postdoctoral fellow in the Zhang Lab, a Human Frontiers Science program fellow, and the study’s first author.

The field is moving quickly: Since the Cas12b family of enzymes was first described in 2015 and demonstrated to be RNA-guided DNA endonucleases, several groups have have been exploring this family of enzymes. In 2017 a team from Jennifer Doudna’s lab at UC Berkeley reported that Cas12b from Alicyclobacillus acidoterrestris can mediate non-specific collateral cleavage of DNA in vitro. More recently, a team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing reported that another Cas12b, from Alicyclobacillus acidiphilus, was used to edit mammalian cells.

The Broad Institute and MIT are sharing the Cas12b system widely. As with earlier genome editing tools, these groups will make the technology freely available for academic research via the Zhang lab’s page on the plasmid-sharing website Addgene, through which the Zhang lab has already shared reagents more than 52,000 times with researchers at nearly 2,400 labs in 62 countries to accelerate research.

Zhang is a core institute member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, and an associate professor at MIT, with joint appointments in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering.

Support for this study was provided by the Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research, the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research, the National Human Genome Research Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and other sources. Feng Zhang is an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.


Strecker J, et al. Engineering of CRISPR-Cas12b for human genome editing. Nature Communications. Online January 22, 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-08224-4.

H. Robert Horvitz

Learning from Worms

Bob Horvitz studies the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Only 1 mm long and containing fewer than 1000 cells, C. elegans has been key to discovering fundamental biological mechanisms that are conserved across species. Horvitz has focused on the genetic control of animal development and behavior, and on the mechanisms that underlie neurodegenerative disease. By identifying mutations that affect C. elegans behavior, Horvitz has revealed much about the genetic control of many aspects of nervous system development and of brain function, including how neural circuits control specific behaviors and how behavior is modulated by experience and by the environment.


Feng Zhang

Molecular Engineering

Feng Zhang develops tools that are broadly applicable to studying genetic diseases and developing diagnostics and therapeutics. These molecular engineering tools are useful for understanding nervous system function and diseases with genetic links such as autism spectrum disorder. Zhang pioneered the development of CRISPR-cas9 as a genome editing tool and its use in eukaryotic cells –including human cells– from a natural CRISPR immune system found in prokaryotes. He has substantially expanded this toolbox through discovery and harnessing of new CRISPRs. These new tools not only include DNA-targeting CRISPR systems, but also CRISPR systems that can target RNA. Through rational engineering he is improving specificity of CRISPR systems, and is expanding their window of opportunity. He has now engineered systems that can cleave within a specific, targeted nucleic acid sequence, and others that are designed to edit specific bases on the DNA or RNA target, and yet others that make epigenetic modifications. These tools, which he has made widely available, are accelerating research, particularly biomedical research, around the world.

Welcoming the first McGovern Fellows

We are delighted to kick off the new year by welcoming Omar Abuddayeh and Jonathan Gootenberg as the first members of our new McGovern Institute Fellows Program. The fellows program is a recently launched initiative that supports highly-talented and selected postdocs that are ready to initiate their own research program.

As McGovern Fellows, the pair will be given space, time, and support to help them follow scientific research directions of their own choosing. This provides an alternative to the traditional postdoctoral research route.

Abudayyeh and Gootenberg both defended their thesis in the fall of 2018, and graduated from the lab of Feng Zhang, who is the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, a McGovern investigator and core member of the Broad Institute. During their time in the Zhang lab, Abudayyeh and Gootenberg worked on projects that sought and found new tools based on enzymes mined from bacterial CRISPR systems. Cas9 is the original programmable single-effector DNA-editing enzyme, and the new McGovern Fellows worked on teams that actively looked for CRISPR enzymes with properties distinct from and complementary to Cas9. In the course of their thesis work, they helped to identify RNA-guided RNA editing factors such as the Cas13 family. This work led to the development of the REPAIR system, which is capable of editing RNA, thus providing a CRISPR-based therapeutic avenue that is not based on permanent, heritable changes to the genome. In addition, they worked on a Cas13-based diagnostic system called SHERLOCK that can detect specific nucleic acid sequences. SHERLOCK is able to detect the presence of infectious agents such as Zika virus in an easily-deployable lateral flow format, similar to a pregnancy test.

We are excited to see the directions that the new McGovern Fellows take as they now arrive at the institute, and will keep you posted on scientific findings as they emerge from their labs.


What is CRISPR?

CRISPR (which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is not actually a single entity, but shorthand for a set of bacterial systems that are found with a hallmarked arrangement in the bacterial genome.

When CRISPR is mentioned, most people are likely thinking of CRISPR-Cas9, now widely known for its capacity to be re-deployed to target sequences of interest in eukaryotic cells, including human cells. Cas9 can be programmed to target specific stretches of DNA, but other enzymes have since been discovered that are able to edit DNA, including Cpf1 and Cas12b. Other CRISPR enzymes, Cas13 family members, can be programmed to target RNA and even edit and change its sequence.

The common theme that makes CRISPR enzymes so powerful, is that scientists can supply them with a guide RNA for a chosen sequence. Since the guide RNA can pair very specifically with DNA, or for Cas13 family members, RNA, researchers can basically provide a given CRISPR enzyme with a way of homing in on any sequence of interest. Once a CRISPR protein finds its target, it can be used to edit that sequence, perhaps removing a disease-associated mutation.

In addition, CRISPR proteins have been engineered to modulate gene expression and even signal the presence of particular sequences, as in the case of the Cas13-based diagnostic, SHERLOCK.

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Omar Abudayyeh

Mining Bacteria for Tools

Omar Abudayyeh works on novel genome editing and gene delivery tools, and applying these tools towards the study of aging. While CRISPR is perhaps best known as a DNA editing tool, Abudayyeh’s team has discovered new CRISPR enzymes, such as the RNA-targeting CRISPR-Cas13, and adapted these enzymes for novel technologies, such as a simple and inexpensive tool to detect human disease. This technology, called SHERLOCK, can detect viruses, bacteria – even genetic signatures associated with cancer – in virtually any location. Abudayyeh and McGovern Fellow Jonathan Gootenberg continue to mine bacterial systems for new technologies to better enable gene therapy as well as applying these technologies towards studying mechanisms of aging.

Using next-generation single-cell sequencing and novel tools for perturbing cell states, Dr. Abudayyeh is determining, with unprecedented resolution, the cell types that arise in the aging brain and how mechanisms, such as senescence, drive detrimental processes in tissues. The ultimate goal is to use this information for building a detailed roadmap of aging circuits and to eventually reverse states of aging for regenerating tissues like the brain.