Saturday, October 18, 2008

Glowing rats & adventure!

The other Nobel Prize I felt qualified to comment on was that awarded for chemistry, where researchers were honoured for the discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which is a protein native to jellyfish and, as implied by the name, can glow green. Now green glowing proteins may not seem like a big deal, but this discovery also brought about fundamental changes in the way we do biology (although the use of luciferase, a light-generating protein from fireflies, was also a big step along the same direction).

In my last post I talked about using the HIV virus a "shuttle" for genetic material, able to insert genes into a host's DNA after infection. Now, if you wanted to look at whether your cells were infected or not, a great way to do that would be to make the virus carry GFP. If you want to know whether a gene is being expressed, you can make a construct that has the same regulatory regions as your gene of interest, but make it code GFP. Instead of performing time-consuming experiments to measure expression, you can literally just look. And then there's the "Brainbow" mice, which have genes for several fluorescent proteins in their neurons. Their stunning pictures (amazing gallery here) will drastically change neuroanatomical methods forever.

Discoveries of this magnitude, like the discovery of the HIV virus, are huge not because of any single aspect of the discovery, but also for the development of tools that literally change the way science is done. The same thing was true of Mello and Flame's Nobel last year for the discovery of RNA interference. This was such a paradigm-shifting discovery that the committee gave out the Nobel to what must be two of the youngest researchers to ever be considered for it, and a discovery that was barely a decade old; normally the Nobel is reserved for the final coup-de-gras of a senior scientist's long and storied career (like Kandel, Greengard and Carlsson in 2000). It heartening to see the Nobel going to researchers who are changing the ways we do science, rather than given out as an honorarium, like a degree to PhD students who've been chugging along as best they can for the last decade.

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Most interesting thing I've read this week: in high school, I was taught about a 1953 experiment by a guy named Miller, which remains one of the most fascinating I've ever heard of. He designed a closed system with an atmosphere similar to what was, at the time, believed to comprise the early Earth's atmosphere - methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide and such. He introduced some sparks and water vapour, and voila - found a couple of amino acids were produced, perhaps giving some insight into abiogenesis (how life came from inorganic precursors).

Miller died last year, and the researcher who inherited his labs and equipment found a series of tubes marked "experiments 1952-1953." He took some vials from the very same experiment and subjected it to much more advanced analysis than was available at the time. These researchers found dozens of organic compounds Miller was unable to detect, lending great support to the original experiments.

While today we acknowledge that the early atmosphere of the planet was not exactly what was envisioned in 1953, this experiment is a fascinating example of a sort of adventurous scientific spirit that I don't think is as prominent today as it was 50 years ago, and I think science is probably the worse for it.


Normand Cyr said...

It is funny you mentioned about Miller. I was stroked as well in high school about his experiments. I even still have a picture in my mind from my first biology class! Miller was an "eccentric" (i.e. thinking differently) in his field and governments unfortunately don't offer such places anymore in science.
BTW, I started a blog with a buddy of mine who is now in San Francisco. Check it out:


Ian Vitro said...

Cheers Norm, I'll check it out for sure.

Miller's experiment was one that really stuck with me, just because of the sheer audacity of it. Like I said, I think that this adventurous spirit is very much discouraged by the way we do science. I have serious doubts that in this day and age that you would be able to get funding for this, or that there's a professor out there who would let his students do a similar experiment - we'll see if these guys try replicating the experiments with elements more consistent with what we now think the early atmosphere was like, and whether they get published or not...