Interdisciplinary Initiatives Program Round 8 - 2016

Hunter Fraser, Biology
Sergiu Pasca, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

Despite a great deal of research, we have discovered surprisingly little about the genetic and molecular bases of uniquely human traits—largely due to the ethical and practical considerations that severely limit experiments comparing humans and other primates. The brain has been especially difficult to study, despite its central importance in human evolution. To advance this field, we will study stem cells that can be differentiated into a variety of cell types found in the brain. We will generate small brain-like structures known as cortical spheroids, which resemble brains from early fetal development. By studying these spheroids produced from human as well as chimpanzee stem cells, we will be able to study early brain development in a more detailed and rigorous way than has previously been possible. This system will allow us to identify and experimentally validate genes underlying key innovations in human brain evolution.