New paper in Cell

 2018 Dec 10. pii: S0092-8674(18)31518-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.11.026. [Epub ahead of print]

Intrinsic Dynamics of a Human Gene Reveal the Basis of Expression Heterogeneity.


Transcriptional regulation in metazoans occurs through long-range genomic contacts between enhancers and promoters, and most genes are transcribed in episodic “bursts” of RNA synthesis. To understand the relationship between these two phenomena and the dynamic regulation of genes in response to upstream signals, we describe the use of live-cell RNA imaging coupled with Hi-C measurements and dissect the endogenous regulation of the estrogen-responsive TFF1 gene. Although TFF1 is highly induced, we observe short active periods and variable inactive periods ranging from minutes to days. The heterogeneity in inactive times gives rise to the widely observed “noise” in human gene expression and explains the distribution of protein levels in human tissue. We derive a mathematical model of regulation that relates transcription, chromosome structure, and the cell’s ability to sense changes in estrogen and predicts that hypervariability is largely dynamic and does not reflect a stable biological state.


RNA; chromosome; estrogen; fluorescence; heterogeneity; imaging; live-cell; single-molecule; steroid; transcription

PMID: 30554876


DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.11.026

Mosquito experiment concluded

It’s hard to see from the photo but when I checked my bucket after a week away, there were definitely a few mosquito larvae swimming around. There was also an impressive biofilm on the bottom of the bucket. It took less than a month for mosquitoes to breed in a newly formed pool of stagnant water. My son also noticed that a nearby flower pot with water only a few centimeters deep also had larvae. So the claims that mosquitos will breed in tiny amounts of stagnant water is true.IMG_3158

Mosquito update

IMG_2917It’s been about two weeks since I first set out my bucket, although I had to move it to a less obtrusive location. Still no signs of mosquito larvae, although judging from my bite frequency even with mosquito repellant, mosquito activity is still high in my garden. I see the occasional insect trapped (they are not really floating since at their size water is highly viscous) in the surface and there is a nice collection of plant debris at the bottom. The water level seems a little bit higher. It has rained at least once every two days since my first post although it has also been very hot so the input seems mostly balanced by the evaporative loss. I’m starting to believe that mosquitos have their prefered gestation grounds that they perpetually use and only exploit new locales when necessary.

Audio of SIAM talk

Here is an audio recording synchronized to slides of my talk a week and a half ago in Pittsburgh. I noticed some places where I said the wrong thing such as conflating neuron with synapse.  I also did not explain the learning part very well. I should point out that we are not applying a control to the network.  We train a set of weights so that given some initial condition, the neuron firing rates follow a specified target pattern. I also made a joke that implied that the Recursive Least Squares algorithm dates to 1972. That is not correct. It goes back much further back than that. I also take a pot shot at physicists. It was meant as a joke of course and describes many of my own papers.

Arsenic and Selenium

You should listen to this podcast from Quirks and Quarks about how University of Calgary scientist Judit Smits is trying to use selenium rich lentils from Saskatchewan, Canada to treat arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. Well water in parts of rural Bangladesh have high levels of natural arsenic and this is a major health problem. Professor Smits, who is actually in the department of veterinary medicine, has done work using arsenic to treat selenium poisoning in animals. It turns out that arsenic and selenium, both of which can be toxic in high doses, effectively neutralize each other. They each seem to increase excretion of the other into the bile. So she hypothesized that selenium might counter arsenic poisoning but the interaction is nontrivial so it is not a certainty that it would work. Dr. Smits organized a study to transport ten tons of lentils from Canada to Bangladesh this past summer to test the hypothesis and you can hear about the trials and tribulations of getting the study done. The results are not yet in but I think this is a perfect example of how cleverness combined with determination can make a real difference. This study is funded entirely from Canadian sources but it sounds like something the Gates and Clinton foundations could be interested in.

2016-9-26. Corrected a typo, changed Saskatchewan to Bangladesh

Confusion about consciousness

I have read two essays in the past month on the brain and consciousness and I think both point to examples of why consciousness per se and the “problem of consciousness” are both so confusing and hard to understand. The first article is by philosopher Galen Strawson in The Stone series of the New York Times. Strawson takes issue with the supposed conventional wisdom that consciousness is extremely mysterious and cannot be easily reconciled with materialism. He argues that the problem isn’t about consciousness, which is certainly real, but rather matter, for which we have no “true” understanding. We know what consciousness is since that is all we experience but physics can only explain how matter behaves. We have no grasp whatsoever of the essence of matter. Hence, it is not clear that consciousness is at odds with matter since we don’t understand matter.

I think Strawson’s argument is mostly sound but he misses on the crucial open question of consciousness. It is true that we don’t have an understanding of the true essence of matter and we probably never will but that is not why consciousness is mysterious. The problem is that we do now know whether the rules that govern matter, be they classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, or general relativity, could give rise to a subjective conscious experience. Our understanding of the world is good enough for us to build bridges, cars, computers and launch a spacecraft 4 billion kilometers to Pluto, take photos, and send them back. We can predict the weather with great accuracy for up to a week. We can treat infectious diseases and repair the heart. We can breed super chickens and grow copious amounts of corn. However, we have no idea how these rules can explain consciousness and more importantly we do not know whether these rules are sufficient to understand consciousness or whether we need a different set of rules or reality or whatever. One of the biggest lessons of the twentieth century is that knowing the rules does not mean you can predict the outcome of the rules. Not even taking into the computability and decidability results of Turing and Gödel, it is still not clear how to go from the microscopic dynamics of molecules to the Navier-Stokes equation for macroscopic fluid flow and how to get from Navier-Stokes to the turbulent flow of a river. Likewise, it is hard to understand how the liver works, much less the brain, starting from molecules or even cells. Thus, it is possible that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the rules that we already know, like wetness or a hurricane. We simply do not know and are not even close to knowing. This is the hard problem of consciousness.

The second article is by psychologist Robert Epstein in the online magazine Aeon. In this article, Epstein rails against the use of computers and information processing as a metaphor for how the brain works. He argues that this type of restricted thinking is why we can’t seem to make any progress understanding the brain or consciousness. Unfortunately, Epstein seems to completely misunderstand what computers are and what information processing means.

Firstly, a computation does not necessarily imply a symbolic processing machine like a von Neumann computer with a central processor, memory, inputs and outputs. A computation in the Turing sense is simply about finding or constructing a desired function from one countable set to another. Now, the brain certainly performs computations; any time we identify an object in an image or have a conversation, the brain is performing a computation. You can couch it in whatever language you like but it is a computation. Additionally, the whole point of a universal computer is that it can perform any computation. Computations are not tied to implementations. I can always simulate whatever (computable) system you want on a computer. Neural networks and deep learning are not symbolic computations per se but they can be implemented on a von Neumann computer. We may not know what the brain is doing but it certainly involves computation of some sort. Any thing that can sense the environment and react is making a computation. Bacteria can compute. Molecules compute. However, that is not to say that everything a brain does can be encapsulated by Turing universal computation. For example, Penrose believes that the brain is not computable although as I argued in a previous post, his argument is not very convincing. It is possible that consciousness is beyond the realm of computation and thus would entail very different physics. However, we have yet to find an example of a real physical phenomenon that is not computable.

Secondly, the brain processes information by definition. Information in both the Shannon and Fisher senses is a measure of uncertainty reduction. For example, in order to meet someone for coffee you need at least two pieces of information, where and when. Before you received that information your uncertainty was huge since there were so many possible places and times the meeting could take place. After receiving the information your uncertainty was eliminated. Just knowing it will be on Thursday is already a big decrease in uncertainty and an increase in information. Much of the brain’s job at least for cognition is about uncertainly reduction. When you are searching for your friend in the crowded cafe, you are eliminating possibilities and reducing uncertainty. The big mistake that Epstein makes is conflating an example with the phenomenon. Your brain does not need to function like your smartphone to perform computations or information processing. Computation and information theory are two of the most important mathematical tools we have for analyzing cognition.