Autism unfolds early in development, so it makes sense that to understand the condition, scientists would need to study it during that time period. But research with fetal brains poses formidable challenges, both logistical and ethical.

As a result, gene expression in fetal brains “is pretty much a black box,” says Jonathan Mill, professor of epigenetics at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Mill has spent the past few years shining light into that box.

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