We have a really interesting project right now to develop protein-based imaging agents for the brain, so we can understand the molecular basis for things like addiction. When activities go on in the brain, it all involves these signaling molecules called neurotransmitters, and we’d like to be able to see their levels going up and down in real time in different parts of the brain.
You’ve seen maps of the brain — that all comes from looking at oxygen so that you can image blood flow in the brain. We’re trying to make new sensor molecules that can allow us to image these actual neurotransmitters going up and down. We’re working on dopamine, which is a very important neurotransmitter involved in everything from Parkinson’s disease to cocaine addiction. We’re making proteins that bind to these neurotransmitters and then emit a signal you can actually see in an MRI.
What would you say to someone who worries that directed evolution crosses an ethical line of playing God?
Humans have been manipulating the environment as long as we’ve been on the planet. We have bred all sorts of organisms that would not survive in the natural world. All of the organisms that I breed in the laboratory are less fit for survival in the natural world. When they’d escape, they’d get eaten. So we’re not creating any kind of superbug. Also, what we’re creating are really molecules. They’re not really living organisms until you implant them in living organisms. We create DNA sequences that encode new proteins. That said, there’s always an opportunity when new technology is developed for it to be used for nefarious purposes. What you hope is that the good outweighs the bad, and I’m trying to make sure that the applications really benefit humans.