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On a chilly morning last November, Michael Segel stepped through the glass doors of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., rode the elevator up to the 10th floor, dropped his jacket and bag at his desk and made a beeline to the tissue culture room. He found his lab mate Blake Lash already there. And Lash had news: Their cells had turned green.

At first, Segel didn’t believe it. “There’s no way this works!” he thought. The Petri dishes must have been contaminated. They tried the experiment again. And the next morning, back in the culture room, when they flipped on a UV light, there again were the cells, glowing a ghostly green.


This happened again, and again. Finally, after the fourth result they realized it wasn’t a fluke. They’d not only confirmed that mammalian cells can communicate with each other via little fragments of genetic code, but discovered a mechanism for how they do it. And that meant they could harness this natural system to ferry instructions for making just about any protein into human cells. They texted the news to the person sure to be most excited about it — their adviser, and one of the world’s most groundbreaking biologists, Feng Zhang.

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