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I Was Working in the Lab Late One Night When My Eyes Beheld an Eerie Sight

Kristie Nybo, PhD

From Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll to "Doc" Emmett Brown, the image of the mad scientist abounds in popular culture. But where did this come from, and are such depictions justified? On this Halloween, BioTechniques takes a look at some real studies that just might be creepy enough to inspire such caricatures. Read more...

Awakening the Ghost

Doris Taylor harvests organs from the deceased, hooks them to tubing, and flushes them with detergents to remove their cells, all with the plan of later reanimating the lifeless carcass that remains. As director of Regenerative Medicine Research at Texas Heart Institute, Taylor uses these decellularized organs as scaffolds for seeding stem cells in her research, all with the goal of one day creating on-demand organs for transplant.

The Mummy

A source of fearful fascination and spooky speculation since their discovery, mummies can now be examined in even greater detail. Carsten Pusch at the University of Tübingen in Germany focuses on next generation sequencing of the genomes and metagenomes of ancient Egyptian mummies, generating data about plants used for embalming, microbial contaminants and infecting organisms in the ancient populations, along with genetic information about the mummies themselves.

Mind Control

Of the creepy crawly creatures of the night, cockroaches seem to rule them all. With their scuttling and swarming behaviors and their ability to disappear at the sight of light, they are hard to manage once an infestation has been established. But neuroscientists Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, co-founders of the educational company Backyard Brains, now offer a sort of revenge on these odious pests. With the purchase of a kit, amateur scientists learn to perform surgery on the bugs to implant a chip that allows them to control the roach’s behavior with their iphones through electrodes that feed into the antennae. Let’s just hope these budding scientists maintain better control of their creations than Dr. Frankenstein did of his monster!

The Walking Dead

Walking Corpse syndrome is a neurological disorder where patients believe they are dead, decaying, or missing blood or internal organs. Adam Zeman (University of Exeter), Steven Laureys (University of Liege), and their colleagues cast new light on the disorder this year when they used positron emission tomography to look at metabolism in the brain of a patient afflicted with this condition. They found that metabolic activity across large portions of the brain resembled someone in a vegetative state. Is this proof that zombies really do walk the earth?


Long considered a symbol of the occult, the sinister nature of the goat escalated when it began producing spider silk. Randy Lewis at Utah State University studies spider silk for its potential in applications such as artificial ligaments and tendons, bulletproof vests, or car airbags. The problem in this line of work was quantity. Spiders are territorial, so there are only so many that can be kept near one another and only so much silk each can produce. The answer? Clone the gene for spider silk and express it in goats so it can be purified from the milk.

The Headless Mouse-man

During a transgenesis experiment involving an unrelated gene, members of Hiroshi Sasaki’s lab, then at Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan, made the gruesome discovery of a mouse embryo missing its head. The sighting of this “headshrinker” phenotype eventually led to identification of the DNA binding protein Ssdp1 responsible and discovery of its role in head development.

So is the "mad scientist" stereotype warranted? And are you walking and working among them?

Keywords:  halloween