The Old Man and the Game of Trust

An Old Man Putting Dry Rice on the Hearth 1881 Vincent van GoghLet us play a game, you and I.

I will give you some money – here, have this note. Of course it’s not a joke. You can take that 100$ bill and walk out of here. No one’ll say a thing. Or come after you.

Or you could do something nice. You see young Joe over there? You don’t know him? Of course you don’t. Doesn’t matter, he’s a good lad. Let me tell you what you can do. You can give him a small share of that 100$ you got. And I’ll say what, however much you decide to give him, I’ll give him twice the amount you do, so that he now has a tight little bundle. And now that he has so much money, I’m sure he’d be feeling grateful, and give you back some of that cash. So, on your part it’s not really a gift, but an investment, one that could make you a nice little packet in the end.

How will you know that he won’t take the money and run, you ask? Well, I can’t answer that. It’s up to the goodness of your heart, and your trust in the goodness of your fellow man. As I said, I won’t make your choice for you. You decide how much you want to give, and he decides how much he wants to give back.

You’ll give him 10$, you say? Fine, fine, I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. By and by, you see this little bottle? Why don’t you take a sniff of that? Nothing that’ll harm you, I promise. All natural, all the goodness of the earth in this little bottle – a perfume of my own invention. And while you smell that and think over how much you want to give young Joe here, let me tell you a little story.

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Ancient DNA: A story writ in genes

The Dinosaur Debacle

Picture a day millions of years past, in a land as yet untouched by the vagaries of man.

jurassic park photoDense forests stretch in every direction from where you stand, and the air you breathe is hot and humid. Now watch, as a magnificent beast, several feet tall, thunders through the undergrowth in determined pursuit of its prey. Years later, men stumbling upon its bones would name it a dinosaur. The little mouse-like creature it is chasing disappears into a burrow, but not before its mate is snatched up in the dinosaur’s crushing jaws. While the predator stands enjoying its meal, it barely notices the little spot of irritation on its shoulder, where a resourceful mosquito sits feasting on the giant’s blood. As the dinosaur moves on, the mosquito flies off to a nearby pine tree, where it rests for a moment before its next meal. Yet this rest would prove to be fatal, as a drop of the tree’s resin, oozing out from a wound in the tree bark, engulfs the hapless mosquito. The resin solidifies, and over millions and millions of years, turns slowly into amber. In the present day, fossil-hunters discover the piece of amber with the perfectly preserved mosquito inside. It would have been dismissed as a curiosity, if it weren’t for some scientists, who, while examining the fossil, discover a drop of dinosaur blood stuck in the mosquito’s tiny stomach. From this drop of blood, they extract DNA, the molecular blueprint of life. Using this DNA, they are able to build a dinosaur genome artificially, and then clone and produce living dinosaurs, enough to fill an island. Enough, in fact, to form a dinosaur theme park. And thus is a story born, that of Stephen Spielberg’s masterpiece and one of the most iconic films of the 20th century – Jurassic Park.

Mosquito in amber
Mosquito in amber by Oregon State University

Spielberg’s movie, which is based on a book by Michael Crichton, is founded on some very real scientific outpourings of that era. In the 1990s, a number of research groups from around the world reported the extraction of intact DNA from ancient insect fossils preserved in amber. While, to the best of my knowledge, no drop of dinosaur blood with dinosaur DNA was ever recovered from an amber fossil, there were enough and widespread studies of fossilized insect DNA sequences that suggested that this was possible. Yet, in the back of many scientific minds, there was a glimmer of doubt, perhaps fanned by the astounding success rates of such studies. Ancient DNA is notoriously difficult to obtain and analyze, and yet reports of doing exactly so continued to pour in in spades. In 1997, Jeremy Austin and colleagues, of the Natural History Museum, London, decided to try and see whether these studies could be replicated.

Amber Insect Fossil

They took more samples than all the other studies before this had had combined, and used a large number of extraction and amplification methods to try and obtain authentic ancient insect DNA. The results were surprising. Most of the samples did not yield sufficient amount of analyzable DNA, and those that did so were inevitably found to be contaminated with modern DNA. This and other studies later went on to establish that it is virtually impossible to retrieve usable DNA from amberized fossil remains, and all of the sensational reports that had come earlier had failed the key test of scientific validity – reproducibility.

In my opinion, this little story demonstrates everything that is exciting and problematic in the field of ancient DNA research, a field that hit its 30th year in 2014.

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The Story Behind this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine

Part 1: Going back to Nature

The year is 1967. Thirty-two year old Satoshi Ōmura, in his lab at the prestigious Kitasato University in Japan, is giving serious thought to the direction his research career is going to take. In the two years he has spent at the University, he has studied the structure of multiple antibiotics using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, uncovering information that might go a long way towards elucidating their mode of action. Since the discovery of Penicillin in 1928, the initial rush of antibiotic discovery has died down, and interest has shifted towards figuring out the structure and function of existing antibiotics, so that new drugs can be synthesized chemically based on this data. It is rewarding work for Ōmura, who is a year away from receiving his PhD, but he is not entirely satisfied. More than anything, he is not convinced that the store of medically relevant novel compounds present in the microbial world has been exhausted.

He believes the search is only just beginning.

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