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UCSC Researchers Snag NSF 2026 Idea Machine Competition funding for “The evolution and diversity of the human brain”

By James McGirk
Baskin School of Engineering
Special to Santa Cruz Tech Beat

September 15, 2020 — Santa Cruz, CA

(Graphic above: Source)

Project may inform clinical and biomedical research by experimentally describing the functions of genes that work in early brain development

A team of UC Santa Cruz researchers are attempting to uncover what makes a human brain unique by inserting genes taken from Neanderthals and Denisovans into brain-like clumps of human cells called ‘cerebral organoids.’

This project, run by UC Santa Cruz Professor Richard “Ed” Green and co-investigators Sofie Salama, Mircea Teodorescu will contrast the genomes of our closest extinct relatives (Neanderthals and Denisovans) with human genomes to identify genetic variants that may play a role in the evolution of a human-specific brain. 

Genomic methods will be used to insert the archaic versions of these genes into human-derived cells. The biology of cells that carry genetic variants that have been extinct for thousands of years will then be studied to help discover recently evolved functions in human brain development and cognition. 

This project aims to discover and describe functional roles for recently evolved human-specific genetic variants in human-derived cortical organoids. Human-specific variants will be discovered using an innovative computational analysis (a reconstructed ancestral recombination graph) of the genomes of humans and their closest, extinct ancestors Neanderthals and Denisovans. 

This approach allows identification of variants that are present in all humans, but absent in the archaic species. Variants present in genes involved in neural development, enriched in this set already, will be prioritized for genetic and functional analysis.

Learn more about the project and the award here: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=2034037

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