Tag Archives: Rockefeller University

The Leonardo Project and the master’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)

I’ve never really understood the mania for digging up bodies of famous people in history and trying to ascertain how the person really died or what kind of diseases they may have had but the practice fascinates me. The latest famous person to be subjected to a forensic inquiry centuries after death is Leonardo da Vinci. A May 5, 2016 Human Evolution (journal) news release on EurekAlert provides details,

A team of eminent specialists from a variety of academic disciplines has coalesced around a goal of creating new insight into the life and genius of Leonardo da Vinci by means of authoritative new research and modern detective technologies, including DNA science.

The Leonardo Project is in pursuit of several possible physical connections to Leonardo, beaming radar, for example, at an ancient Italian church floor to help corroborate extensive research to pinpoint the likely location of the tomb of his father and other relatives. A collaborating scholar also recently announced the successful tracing of several likely DNA relatives of Leonardo living today in Italy (see endnotes).

If granted the necessary approvals, the Project will compare DNA from Leonardo’s relatives past and present with physical remnants — hair, bones, fingerprints and skin cells — associated with the Renaissance figure whose life marked the rebirth of Western civilization.

The Project’s objectives, motives, methods, and work to date are detailed in a special issue of the journal Human Evolution, published coincident with a meeting of the group hosted in Florence this week under the patronage of Eugenio Giani, President of the Tuscan Regional Council (Consiglio Regionale della Toscana).

The news release goes on to provide some context for the work,

Born in Vinci, Italy, Leonardo died in 1519, age 67, and was buried in Amboise, southwest of Paris. His creative imagination foresaw and described innovations hundreds of years before their invention, such as the helicopter and armored tank. His artistic legacy includes the iconic Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

The idea behind the Project, founded in 2014, has inspired and united anthropologists, art historians, genealogists, microbiologists, and other experts from leading universities and institutes in France, Italy, Spain, Canada and the USA, including specialists from the J. Craig Venter Institute of California, which pioneered the sequencing of the human genome.

The work underway resembles in complexity recent projects such as the successful search for the tomb of historic author Miguel de Cervantes and, in March 2015, the identification of England’s King Richard III from remains exhumed from beneath a UK parking lot, fittingly re-interred 500 years after his death.

Like Richard, Leonardo was born in 1452, and was buried in a setting that underwent changes in subsequent years such that the exact location of the grave was lost.

If DNA and other analyses yield a definitive identification, conventional and computerized techniques might reconstruct the face of Leonardo from models of the skull.”

In addition to Leonardo’s physical appearance, information potentially revealed from the work includes his ancestry and additional insight into his diet, state of health, personal habits, and places of residence.

According to the news release, the researchers have an agenda that goes beyond facial reconstruction and clues about  ancestry and diet,

Beyond those questions, and the verification of Leonardo’s “presumed remains” in the chapel of Saint-Hubert at the Château d’Amboise, the Project aims to develop a genetic profile extensive enough to understand better his abilities and visual acuity, which could provide insights into other individuals with remarkable qualities.

It may also make a lasting contribution to the art world, within which forgery is a multi-billion dollar industry, by advancing a technique for extracting and sequencing DNA from other centuries-old works of art, and associated methods of attribution.

Says Jesse Ausubel, Vice Chairman of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, sponsor of the Project’s meetings in 2015 and 2016: “I think everyone in the group believes that Leonardo, who devoted himself to advancing art and science, who delighted in puzzles, and whose diverse talents and insights continue to enrich society five centuries after his passing, would welcome the initiative of this team — indeed would likely wish to lead it were he alive today.”

The researchers aim to have the work complete by 2019,

In the journal, group members underline the highly conservative, precautionary approach required at every phase of the Project, which they aim to conclude in 2019 to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death.

For example, one objective is to verify whether fingerprints on Leonardo’s paintings, drawings, and notebooks can yield DNA consistent with that extracted from identified remains.

Early last year, Project collaborators from the International Institute for Humankind Studies in Florence opened discussions with the laboratory in that city where Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi has been undergoing restoration for nearly two years, to explore the possibility of analyzing dust from the painting for possible DNA traces. A crucial question is whether traces of DNA remain or whether restoration measures and the passage of time have obliterated all evidence of Leonardo’s touch.

In preparation for such analysis, a team from the J. Craig Venter Institute and the University of Florence is examining privately owned paintings believed to be of comparable age to develop and calibrate techniques for DNA extraction and analysis. At this year’s meeting in Florence, the researchers also described a pioneering effort to analyze the microbiome of a painting thought to be about five centuries old.

If human DNA can one day be obtained from Leonardo’s work and sequenced, the genetic material could then be compared with genetic information from skeletal or other remains that may be exhumed in the future.

Here’s a list of the participating organizations (from the news release),

  • The Institut de Paléontologie Humaine, Paris
  • The International Institute for Humankind Studies, Florence
  • The Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology and Paleogenetics, Biology Department, University of Florence
  • Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, in Vinci, Italy
  • J. Craig Venter Institute, La Jolla, California
  • Laboratory of Genetic Identification, University of Granada, Spain
  • The Rockefeller University, New York City

You can find the special issue of Human Evolution (HE Vol. 31, 2016 no. 3) here. The introductory essay is open access but the other articles are behind a paywall.

Nanoparticle-based radiogenetics to control brain cells

While the title for this post sounds like an opening for a zombie-themed story, this Oct. 8, 2014 news item on Nanowerk actually concerns brain research at Rockefeller University (US), Note: A link has been removed,

A proposal to develop a new way to remotely control brain cells from Sarah Stanley, a Research Associate in Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, headed by Jeffrey M. Friedman, is among the first to receive funding from the BRAIN initiative. The project will make use of a technique called radiogenetics that combines the use of radio waves or magnetic fields with nanoparticles to turn neurons on or off.

An Oct. 7, 2014 Rockefeller University news release, which originated the news item, further describes the BRAIN initiative and the research (Note: Links have been removed),

The NIH [National Institutes of Health]  is one of four federal agencies involved in the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative. Following in the ambitious footsteps of the Human Genome Project, the BRAIN initiative seeks to create a dynamic map of the brain in action, a goal that requires the development of new technologies. The BRAIN initiative working group, which outlined the broad scope of the ambitious project, was co-chaired by Rockefeller’s Cori Bargmann, head of the Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior.

Stanley’s grant, for $1.26 million over three years, is one of 58 projects to get BRAIN grants, the NIH announced. The NIH’s plan for its part of this national project, which has been pitched as “America’s next moonshot,” calls for $4.5 billion in federal funds over 12 years.

The technology Stanley is developing would enable researchers to manipulate the activity of neurons, as well as other cell types, in freely moving animals in order to better understand what these cells do. Other techniques for controlling selected groups of neurons exist, but her new nanoparticle-based technique has a unique combination of features that may enable new types of experimentation. For instance, it would allow researchers to rapidly activate or silence neurons within a small area of the brain or dispersed across a larger region, including those in difficult-to-access locations. Stanley also plans to explore the potential this method has for use treating patients.

“Francis Collins, director of the NIH, has discussed the need for studying the circuitry of the brain, which is formed by interconnected neurons. Our remote-control technology may provide a tool with which researchers can ask new questions about the roles of complex circuits in regulating behavior,” Stanley says.

Here’s an image that Rockefeller University has used to illustrate the concept of radio-controlled brain cells,

 

BRAIN control: The new technology uses radio waves to activate or silence cells remotely. The bright spots above represent cells with increased calcium after treatment with radio waves, a change that would allow neurons to fire. [downloaded from: http://newswire.rockefeller.edu/2014/10/07/rockefeller-neurobiology-lab-is-awarded-first-round-brain-initiative-grant/]

BRAIN control: The new technology uses radio waves to activate or silence cells remotely. The bright spots above represent cells with increased calcium after treatment with radio waves, a change that would allow neurons to fire. [downloaded from: http://newswire.rockefeller.edu/2014/10/07/rockefeller-neurobiology-lab-is-awarded-first-round-brain-initiative-grant/]

You can find out more about the US BRAIN initiative here.

Baba Brinkman’s ‘off the top’ neuroscience improv and other raps

Provided you live in New York City or are visiting at the right time, there’s a free Baba Brinkman and others performance (from the Off The Top: The Neuroscience of Improv Eventbrite registration page),

Off The Top: The Neuroscience of Improv
The Rockefeller University Science Outreach Program
Wednesday, July 23, 2014 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM (EDT)
New York, NY [emphasis mine]

Here’s a description of the performance and performers (Note: Berlin and Brinkman are a married to each other),

Neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin teams up with science rapper and freestyle fanatic Baba Brinkman to explore the brain basis of spontaneous creativity. Brought to you by the prefrontal cortex, and featuring special guest performers, this is a celebration of the science and stagecraft behind life’s unforgettable moments of unscripted gold.

Held in The Rockefeller University’s iconic Caspary Auditorium, this event will expertly mash up pop culture, hip hop, and neuroscience. Guests will experience an accessible conversation while being entertained by some of NYC’s own hip hop performers.

About the Performers:

Heather Berlin, PhD is an American neuroscientist focusing on brain-behavior relationships affecting the prevention and treatment of psychiatric disorders. She is also interested in the neural basis of consciousness and dynamic unconscious processes.

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rapper, poet and playwright best known for recordings and performances that combine hip hop music with literature, theatre, and science.

More special guests to be named!

For anyone unfamiliar with Rockefeller University (this list includes me) there’s this from their About The Rockefeller University webpage (Note: A link has been removed),

The Rockefeller University is a world-renowned center for research and graduate education in the biomedical sciences, chemistry, bioinformatics and physics. The university’s 75 laboratories conduct both clinical and basic research and study a diverse range of biological and biomedical problems with the mission of improving the understanding of life for the benefit of humanity.

Founded in 1901 by John D. Rockefeller, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was the country’s first institution devoted exclusively to biomedical research. The Rockefeller University Hospital was founded in 1910 as the first hospital devoted exclusively to clinical research. In the 1950s, the institute expanded its mission to include graduate education and began training new generations of scientists to become research leaders around the world. In 1965, it was renamed The Rockefeller University.

The university does have a ‘science’ Outreach webpage which features a number of initiatives for summer 2014,

Getting back to Baba Brinkman, he’s quite busy preparing a new show and getting ready to present it and two others* at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival as per his July 11, 2014 announcement,

Theatre making is quite the trial-by-fire! I’ve spent the past ten 18-hour days writing and rehearsing and recording and rewriting the script for The Rap Guide to Religion, which is set to premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival starting July 30th, and I need your help to spread the word! Below you will find links to the three different shows I’m performing in at the Fringe, and I encourage (aka beg) you to click on each one and hit the link to “like” them on facebook. Or, if you know anyone coming to the Fringe, please send them a recommendation.

The Rap Guide to Religion explores the evolutionary origins of religiosity.

The Canterbury Tales Remixed, adapts Chaucer’s Tales for the modern ear and era. 

Off The Top adventures in the neuroscience of creativity and improvisation.

Also, calling all New Yorkers! There will be two preview performances of Rap Guide to Religion next week, July 15/16 [2014], at the East to Edinburgh festival, details here. This will be the first-ever staging of a brand new production, which is still very much a work in progress, so come if you want to catch a glimpse of the process rather than the product.

So to sum this up, there’s one free neuroscience rap show at Rockfeller University and  previews (cheaper tickets) of the new ‘religious rap’.  Then, Brinkman will be taking three shows (Rap Guide to Religion, The Canterbury Tales Remixed, and Off The Top) to Scotland’s  Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

* ‘shows’ removed from sentence to ensure better grammar on July 14, 2014 at 12:25 pm PDT.