Unwrapping brain development

Not satisfied with transforming plant biology and stem cell science, The University of Western Australia’s Ryan Lister is also tacking the human brain.


How our brains develop is still largely a mystery. Ryan thinks part of the answer is in the DNA packaging.

Ryan Lister plans to apply the brain development research to see if it can be used to screen for diseases. Credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear
Ryan Lister plans to apply the brain development research to see if it can be used to screen for diseases. Credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear

He is deciphering the customisable, rich layer of extra information—the epigenome—that acts like chemical signposts to tell cells how to read DNA. He’s found there are huge changes in the patterns of these signposts during brain development of mice and humans. Now he’s focusing on how this influences brain development and function, for better or worse.

“We’ve found that one form of these signposts, called DNA methylation, changes in the brain during the period of childhood when all the neurons are connecting,” Ryan says.

In mice, Ryan’s team saw that at two weeks old—right around the time they begin opening their eyes, and a time of high sensory input—a different type of methylation suddenly begins appearing.

“It appears to be part of normal brain development in both mice and humans, even though we’re separated by tens of millions of years of evolution,” Ryan says.

This is a very different picture to our understanding of eight years ago. Improvements in technology have reduced the cost of DNA sequencing 10,000-fold and allowed Ryan to sequence the epigenome and map the precise location of these chemical signposts.

He plans to investigate their involvement in learning and memory, as well as various disorders and diseases including autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia.

For more information: University of Western Australia, Ryan Lister, ryan.lister@uwa.edu.au, listerlab.org

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