The Art of Explaining Hard Ideas: Scientists Try to Explain Gene Editing & Brain Mapping to Young Kids & Students

If you’ve seen Bong Joon-ho’s film Okja, about an Agribusi­ness-engi­neered gar­gan­tu­an mutant pig and her young Kore­an girl side­kick, you may have some very spe­cif­ic ideas about CRISPR, the sci­ence used to edit and manip­u­late genes. In fact, the mad­cap fic­tion­al adventure’s world may not be too far off, though the sci­ence seems to be mov­ing in the oth­er direc­tion. Just recent­ly, Chi­nese sci­en­tists have report­ed the cre­ation of 12 pigs with 24 per­cent less body fat than the ordi­nary vari­ety. It may not be front-page news yet, but the achieve­ment is “a big issue for the pig indus­try,” says the lead researcher.

There’s much more to CRISPR than bio­engi­neer­ing lean bacon. But what is it and how does it work? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Let biol­o­gist Neville San­jana explain. In the Wired video above, he under­takes the ulti­mate chal­lenge for sci­ence communicators—explaining the most cut­ting-edge sci­ence to five dif­fer­ent peo­ple: a 7‑year-old, 14-year-old, col­lege stu­dent, grad stu­dent, and—to real­ly put him on the spot—a CRISPR expert. CRISPR is “a new area of bio­med­ical sci­ence that enables gene edit­ing,” San­jana begins in his short intro for view­ers, “and it’s help­ing us under­stand the basis of many genet­ic dis­eases like autism and can­cer.”

That’s all well and good, but does he have any­thing to say about the pig busi­ness? Watch and find out, begin­ning with the adorable 7‑year-old Teigen Riv­er, who may or may not have been primed with per­fect respons­es. Play it for your own kids and let us know how well the expla­na­tion works. San­jara runs quick­ly through his oth­er stu­dents to arrive, halfway through the video, at Dr. Matthew Can­ver, CRISPR expert.

From there on out you may wish to refer to oth­er quick ref­er­ences, such as the Har­vard and MIT Broad Institute’s short guide and video intro above from mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gist Feng Zhang, who explains that CRISPR, or “Clus­tered Reg­u­lar­ly Inter­sperced Short Palin­dromic Repeats,” is actu­al­ly the name of DNA sequences in bac­te­ria. The gene edit­ing tech­nol­o­gy itself is called CRISPR-Cas9. Just so you know how the sausage is made.

Enough of pig puns. Let’s talk about brains, with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dr. Bob­by Kasthuri of the Argonne Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry. He faces a sim­i­lar chal­lenge above—this time explain­ing high con­cept sci­ence to a 5‑year-old, 13-year-old, col­lege stu­dent, grad stu­dent, and a “Con­nec­tome entre­pre­neur.” A what? Con­nec­tome is the prod­uct of the NIH’s Human Con­nec­tome Project, which set out to “pro­vide an unpar­al­leled com­pi­la­tion of neur­al data” and “achieve nev­er before real­ized con­clu­sions about the liv­ing human brain.” This brain-map­ping sci­ence has many objec­tives, one of which, in the 5‑year-old ver­sion, is “to know where every cell in your brain is, and how it can talk to every oth­er cell.”

To this aston­ish­ing expla­na­tion you may reply like Daniel Dod­son, 5‑year-old, with a stunned “Oh.” And then you may think of Philip K. Dick, or Black Mir­ror’s “San Junipero” episode. Espe­cial­ly after hear­ing from “Con­nec­tome Entre­pre­neur” Rus­sell Han­son, founder and CEO of a com­pa­ny called Brain Back­ups, or after lis­ten­ing to Sebas­t­ian Seung—“leader in the field of connectomics”—give his TED talk, “I am my con­nec­tome.” Want anoth­er short, but grown-up focused, expla­na­tion of the total­ly sci­ence-fic­tion but also com­plete­ly real Con­nec­tome? See Kasthuri’s 2‑minute ani­mat­ed video above from Boston Uni­ver­si­ty.

Relat­ed Video:

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

Richard Feyn­man Cre­ates a Sim­ple Method for Telling Sci­ence From Pseu­do­science (1966)

125 Great Sci­ence Videos: From Astron­o­my to Physics & Psy­chol­o­gy 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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