Scientists alter developing brain to resemble that of another species

Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have found that by applying chemicals to manipulate genes in a developing embryo, they've been able to change the brain of one type of cichlid fish to resemble that of another. The researchers also discovered differences in the general patterning of the brain very early in development before functional neurons form in a process known as neurogenesis.

This finding is at odds with a well-held theory known as ''late equals large.'' The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition 3 May 2010.

In the mid 1990s, the hypothesis called ''late equals large'' was put forth to explain the way brains evolve across species.

The brain begins as a blank slate. In early development, the anterior, or front, part of the brain is specified from the posterior, or back, part. After that, neurogenesis occurs as precursor cells mature to become neurons. These precursors can replicate endlessly, but once they become functional neurons, replication ends.

The later the switch from precursors to mature neurons, the larger the brain, or brain region, becomes. The ''late equals large'' model holds that the brains of different species, for example humans vs. mice, are similar early in development and differ because of the later process of neurogenesis.

''We found differences in the general patterning of the brain as early as 48 hours after fertilisation, before neurogenesis begins,'' said J. Todd Streelman, associate professor in Georgia Tech's School of Biology.