Humans have a long tradition of turning things that harm us into things that help us. We made bears into hide coats, bred wolves into purse-sized dogs, and used botulinum toxin, the most acutely lethal poison on the planet, to smooth away crow’s-feet. Eight years ago, the neuroscientist Ed Callaway and his colleagues at the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California, added the rabies virus to this list, engineering their own strain in order to study the interplay of individual neurons in the brain. Callaway and his team began with a vaccine form of the rabies virus that was missing the hook-making gene, rendering it unable to jump between cells. They equipped this inert virus with a single set of artificial hooks, allowing it to make exactly one jump—after which, Callaway told me, “it is stuck. It can’t get out.” Finally, they gave the virus a fluorescence gene borrowed from jellyfish; as it moved, it left behind a luminous wake.
Because the Salk team’s modified rabies virus was restricted to only one jump, they were able to illuminate a tiny piece of the map. Given enough of these pieces, ot might one day be possible to compile a complete map of a mouse brain and, eventually, the human brain. The need for such maps is great.
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