Pai, V. P., Aw, S., Shomrat, T., Lemire, J. M. & Levin, M. Transmembrane voltage potential controls embryonic eye patterning in Xenopus laevis. Development 139, 313–323 (2011).
Like most of you, I spent 2007 working as a lab technician in Missoula, Montana, listening to Juelz Santana’s “What the Game’s Been Missing” three times a day while maintaining a colony of writhing beetle larvae the size of small rats. Although I “failed to produce any conclusive data of any sort” for nearly 18 months straight, I got a tantalizing taste of one of my favorite parts of science: working on stuff that’s completely outside of the mainstream-Total-Request-Live-Jersey-Shore-boring-shit-show that constitutes 99% of medically-oriented biology. (OK I take it back I obviously love all that medical biology stuff I’m just saying that mouse geneticists shouldn’t forget how much can be learned from weirder animals).
Anyway, it was during the summer of 2007 that I first heard a talk by Dr. Michael Levin, an established champion of insanely sick scientific ideas that are really far out there. His talk was ostensibly about how animals generate left-right asymmetry during development, but introduced me to the following concepts:
1) There is a human disease called Situs inversus, where people are born as mirror images of “normals,” with their hearts on the right side, for example.
2) During the geological periods when the magnetic pole was at the southern tip of the earth (apparently it flip-flops every so often in earth’s history), snails predominantly coil their shells in the opposite direction. (***Note: This claim is “controversial” but is so awesome that I don’t care, and you can read more about it here).
3) Planarian flatworms can be trained to perform certain tasks, then you can cut their heads (including brains) off, and they will regenerate a brain which retains a memory of the task. (***Note: Upon further questioning, Dr. Levin told us that these studies had been done decades ago and had never been successfully repeated).
As you can imagine, I immediately emailed Dr. Levin after his talk to ask if I could come join his lab forever. As a testament to what a stand-up scientist and person he is, he responded with one of the most thoughtful emails I’ve ever gotten, recommending that I get trained in a more traditional lab so that people will listen to my research later on, and if I was still sure after getting my street cred, I was more than welcome to come get weird. I only repeat this personal story so you can understand why I’m such a fan of his scientific style and his research.
Of course, throughout this entire time, the Levin Lab has been pumping out the sick science from deep left field. This paper is just one of many examples. While nearly every developmental biologist focuses exclusively on genes, this paper instead focuses on how electricity is used by embryos. Using a dye that is voltage-sensitive, they identify parts of the frog embryo which are hyperpolarized compared to the cells around them. They find that the eye primordia glow with this dye, and spend the rest of the paper manipulating the membrane potential of these cells in various ways and showing that this screws up eye development.
For me, the specifics of this paper aren’t what’s really hot (though hot they are). What is hot is that they are approaching animal development from an angle that dudes just simply aren’t thinking about. Who knows where this stuff will go? The Levin Lab website claims that they are using bioelectric approaches to help people regrow lost fingers, which is officially sick. But even if that doesn’t pan out, I hold the sickness of this pape to be self-evident.