Randall Platt has created a way to record molecular events in a cell across time—a technology that has the potential to transform our understanding of a number of important biological processes.
Currently, for instance, one of the best tools available to understand the molecular processes that occur during embryonic development or immune responses to cancer is RNA-seq, a technique that allows biologists to develop a snapshot of how genes are being expressed—which ones are being turned on or off—at a single moment in time. But while RNA-seq provides a snapshot, Platt’s tool could potentially be used to record the equivalent of a brief video, capturing gene expression over time and thus providing a much richer picture of, say, an embryo’s development.
“At the core of all of biology and biomedicine is looking at transitions in systems—whether it be a stem cell that develops into a neuron or a healthy neuron that develops into a degenerative neuron,” he says. “How people approach this problem today is they perform time-point experiments and then kind of guess what’s happening in between. I was going after a technology that would fill that gap—what was happening to the cells throughout this transition.”
Platt has big ambitions for his tool. He invented it to deal with a problem that repeatedly frustrated him when he was a graduate student at MIT. A group identified a gene that, when mutated and missing, appeared to play a role in autism—though precisely when the gene affected the brain’s development remained a mystery.
“If you want to identify a meaningful defect in a neuron you need to know exactly when, where, and how to look,” he says. “This was the biological problem that motivated me to create the recording tool.”