There’s been a lot of excitement over the past few years about genes linked to brain diseases. You may have heard that people carrying certain variations of the LRRK2 gene, for example, have an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.
But did you know that gene expression—that is, the translation of DNA into RNA and, eventually, into proteins—can vary quite a bit in different tissues and cell types?
LRRK2 expression map made by Virginia (Image courtesy Allen Institute for Brain Science) That’s why, in 2006, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle launched the Allen Mouse Brain Atlas, an online, three-dimensional map of the critters’ brains. Since the 19th century, scientists have been mapping various regions of the brain—such as the outer layer, or cortex, that “Secret Life” star Mollie Woodworth studies. But the Allen Brain Institute is zooming in much, much closer, mapping the complicated brain expression patterns of more than 21,000 genes (that’s more than 80 percent of all mouse genes!).
The atlas exists thanks to years of painstaking work: with the help of automated machines, researchers made super-thin brain slices, stained them to show expression patterns of individual genes, and then snapped high-res pictures of each one. They made some 85 million images in all, and then integrated them into this free and easy-to-use software. It’s so easy, in fact, that after tinkering for about 10 minutes, I managed to create an expression map of LRRK2, shown here.
The Institute has similar data for the developing mouse brain (which I reckon Mollie has used a few times). And this May, it launched the Allen Human Brain Atlas. Hopefully, comparing the expression patterns in people and mice will help scientists like Mollie apply their mouse work to human diseases.