The Human brain and nervous system form an intricate matrix of electrical signals that coordinate our thoughts, emotions, memories, senses, speech, and movement. Over a billion people worldwide have a form of brain disorder that incapacitates them in some manner. Each year, millions of Americans are diagnosed with an inherited condition that impacts their nervous system. Known as Neurogenetic diseases, these conditions are primarily caused by an alteration, or mutation, in the individual’s Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). At a cost of over $1 trillion a year, researchers and companies have a tremendous incentive to find cures for these diseases of the brain and nervous system.
Could light-seeking organisms, such as algae, provide the missing link in curing these debilitating diseases?
Billions of neurons make up the brain and form an interconnected network which communicates using chemicals called neurotransmitters. The correct functioning of this complex neural network is necessary for activities such as thinking, walking, and talking. Neurogenetic disease can lead to the misfiring of neurons and can lead to irreversible degeneration of specific neurons.
Affecting individuals of all ages, neurogenetic diseases are typically chronic and debilitating. In the most extreme disorders, the impacts are degenerative and reduce the individual’s lifespan. Scientists classify neurogenetic diseases into two categories: monogenetic and complex. Disorders caused by a mutation in a single gene are referred to as “monogenetic diseases,” and include Huntington’s disease, myotonic dystrophy, Rett syndrome and fragile X syndrome. In Monogenic diseases, a single-gene mutation causes certain neurons in the central or the peripheral nervous system to develop abnormally or function poorly. In “complex diseases” such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, disorders can be caused by mutations in multiple genes with additional environmental factors contributing to the development of the disease.
Individuals diagnosed with a neurogenetic disease live with a severe, often times progressive, disability. In degenerative neurogenetic disorders, the ability to move or talk can deteriorate thereby decreasing an individual’s independence and quality of life. In some diseases, cognitive functioning also declines which impacts the ability to reason, understand situations, and remember friends, family, and past events.
Up to the 1980’s, neurogenetic diseases could be diagnosed, but little could be done to prevent the onset or progression of the diseases. Breakthroughs in understanding the human genome, the DNA sequence, has brought new hopes to those dealing with neurogenetic diseases. Gene therapy introduces new genetic material to cells to replace missing or malfunctioning genes. Previously existing only in the realm of science fiction, gene therapy has produced promising results in treating neurological diseases.
Optogenetics and Algae
Light seeking organisms, such as algae, are currently being utilized and studied by researchers in the hopes of providing a breakthrough in genetic therapies in neurological disorders. Algae needs sunlight to complete its cycle of photosynthesis: converting carbon dioxide and water into sugar which feeds the organism. Algae senses and moves towards the light via phototaxis. It is this desire for light which has made chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a single-celled alga, the focus of cutting edge research in treating disorders of the brain and nervous system. Chlamydomonas proteins, called channelrhodopsins, were discovered on an alga’s eyespot by a research team at the Texas Health Science Center.
Optogenetics uses light to control neurons which have been genetically sensitized to light. While brain cells are not sensitive to light, by introducing light-sensitive proteins into specific types of neurons, scientists can selectively control the modified neurons by shining light into the brain. Dr. Edward Boyden, an Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, along with his team, envisioned a mechanism for modifying neurons.
His team spliced light-sensitive DNA from the alga into a virus, known as a gene therapy vector, which is then introduced into the body of an individual. His colleague, Dr. Feng Zhang, described the process stating, “My first challenge was to figure out a way to put channelrhodopsin-2 into neurons reliably and safely. I modified the HIV virus so that rather than delivering viral content into infected cells, the modified virus would deliver a gene for the light-sensitive protein.” Thus, through the use of algae in Optogenetics, scientists are developing innovative advancements in treating disorders including Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, autism, and depression.
Freemasonry and Seeking the Light
Freemasons seek the light to enable discovery, to gain knowledge, and to dispel ignorance. The absence of light impairs one’s ability to see and keeps the individual in a state of darkness and ignorance.
The Ancient Mysteries, from which Freemasonry has derived many of its teachings, developed the concept of Light as a symbol of Knowledge and Truth. Whether catalyzed by an individual’s desire for wisdom or algae’s desire to complete its cycle of photosynthesis, the search for light is truly beneficial for all.