The Atlantic

A New Genetic Clue to How Humans Got Such Big Brains

Three genes that appeared during our early evolution probably increased the number of neurons in our heads—but at a cost.
Source: Matt Cardy / Getty

It started with some blobs of brain-like tissue, growing in a dish.

Frank Jacobs, then at the University of California at Santa Cruz, had taken stem cells from humans and monkeys, and coaxed them into forming small balls of neurons. These “organoids” mirror the early stages of brain development. By studying them, Jacobs could look for genes that are switched on more strongly in the growing brains of humans than in those of monkeys. And when he presented his data to his colleagues at a lab meeting, one gene grabbed everyone’s attention.

“There was a, who co-directs the Santa Cruz team with David Haussler. “What the hell is NOTCH2NL? None of us had ever heard of it.”

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