(if you’re here for the first time look at excerpts 1-26 in earlier Blogs )
The true seeker hunteth naught but the object of his quest…
The Seven Valleys
Maddie was standing over her lab bench, staring at her lab book, when Alex came in. She couldn’t quite fathom how it had happened, but it had totally escaped her. And now she was staring at the pictures of her gels and they confirmed it.
“Oh God,” Maddie groaned.
“What’s the matter, Maddie? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Alex said.
Maddie looked up, “I…I think I have a serious problem.”
“What? What is it?”
Maddie had pulled over the nearest stool and was leaning against the lab bench, her hands over her face.
“C’mon, Maddie. It cannot be so bad?”
“Oh Alex, it’s bad.”
He crossed his arms and stood patiently waiting, genuine concern on his face.
“Alex, remember when I reported that I had found a toxin in the band 23 lines? The one that showed a beautiful dosage response in killing the virus?”
“Yes. I remember, in your seminar, right?”
She nodded. “Well, it looks like there’s a line here, that doesn’t show band 23 protein, but is exhibiting a high level of resistance. I don’t understand it. It was there. Last season the band was there.” She flipped through the pages of her notebook, pointing to a gel photo that had been glued in at an earlier date. “Look, see? This is line 4936, October of last year, and now” she flipped forward in the book, “this is line 4936, one generation later. I just ran these gels this month.”
Alex peered over her finger and examined it critically.
“Maddie, could it be you got your seed packets mixed up?”
“Alex, I double-checked everything. Everything! This is line 4936!
“And you say it’s retained the resistance?”
“Yep. It’s retained the resistance, the field rating was very low, but the band has disappeared!”
“Wow, that’s a mystery for sure.”
“A mystery and a disaster!! After the claims I made in my seminar!” She thought woefully about Heinrich Van Zandt’s suspicions.
“Oh, I don’t think you should look at it as a disaster, Maddie. Just a mystery that needs explanation.”
“Yes, but the problem is that I said we could use this band as a marker for selection. It was going to be the ultimate breeding tool for developing resistance to the Bean Lesion Virus. It was the toxin band. Now it turns out it’s unstable!” Her hand went back to her forehead. “Oh, it all fit so nicely! I should have known it was too good to be true, nothing is ever that simple.”
“What will you do now?”
She tried to muster some enthusiasm, “I have to think.” She gathered up her notes and left the lab, headed for her office.
“Good luck!!” he yelled after her.
Plopping her lab book on her desk she tried to collect her thoughts.
“Okay, Maddie, we mustn’t panic now.” She looked up at the square of wall at the back of her desk, right in what she called her meditation zone, because she always stared there when she had to wrestle with a problem. There on a note card taped to the wall she read: “Respect for Differences.” It was an allusion to how Barbara McClintock had chased down the single deviant to eventually make the discovery that had turned the world of genetics upside down. Her philosophy had always been to respect the single exception, to listen to the material, to look at differences as clues to the greater picture.
“Okay, okay, so what is so interesting about this blasted abnormality?” She rubbed her forehead and squinted her eyes at the gel picture and quietly reviewed the facts. “I isolated the toxin from a very narrow molecular weight range, so the toxin had to be something in that protein band.”
She reminded herself to breathe.
“But the band isn’t there anymore, so where did it go?”
She rubbed her temples and then had a sudden flash. “Wait, wait. Did it break down? Maybe it broke down into smaller peptides.” She sat up straighter, this time running her finger up and down the column of protein bands. She put the two gel pictures beside each other and put a ruler across the two so she could move down the column very slowly and compare every band. Where the more recent gel was missing band 23, further down the column she found two other smaller, much fainter protein bands, at positions 28 and 32.
She decided she would have to run 2-D gels on the band 23 lines. If she could prove that these two smaller bands were just subunits of band 23 then all was not lost.
She went into the lab the following evening, after a full day of classes, and began running 2-D gels. “I’m gonna have more pictures in my thesis than a comic book.”
When the gels were done and she held the pictures in her hand, it confirmed her hypothesis. Band 23 had broken down into peptides corresponding to band 28 and 32. She was able to walk into the Friday group meeting and report her results, rather than just her perplexity.
“What I really want to know is what caused the breakup of the polypeptide into subunits, from one generation to another,” Maddie said, as she concluded her remarks.
“Well, Maddie, who knows?” Dr. Gates answered. “Just crossing the wild and cultivated lines could have caused linkages to break up, and genes to recombine from one generation to another.”
He was quoting her genetics she knew very well. Of course recombination had occurred! But the explanation she was seeking was a biochemical one.
“Do you think maybe some key inhibitor was dislodged, allowing a gene for some new enzyme…to be activated?”
“Well, we’ll probably never know exactly…” he waved his hand dismissing that line of inquiry. It seemed he didn’t want to venture into the realm of molecular genetics[i], where new theories of developmental regulation[ii] through transposable elements[iii] were being postulated every day. He wanted to stay firmly in the realm of applied science.
She sighed. The tension between applied and basic research always existed in the back of her mind. How far did one go and still consider it applied science? And wasn’t the whole purpose of science to apply knowledge to those avenues that were most useful to humanity? Sometimes she thought most of the scientists she knew didn’t seem to have enough of a sense of urgency about this, about tackling the really tough problems of the world. She considered that agricultural scientists were directly responsible for solving the problems of famine and malnutrition in the world.
But then, you also had to have basic research, in order to have something to apply! And this area invariably seemed more thrilling to her. She wanted to unravel the very mysteries of the universe, to know how things actually worked, not just to transfer a few genes from one line to another and then engage in endless rounds of screening and selection.
Anyhow, she had no more time to focus on this now. Final exams were directly on top of her and she needed to knuckle under. Once again, the marathon syndrome took over, and everything became just a hurdle that had to be jumped before you went on to something else. At the end of it all, she slept for a day and then got back to her research. She had a week to go before going home to Chicago to see her family.
Maddie walked out the west door of the department at eleven o’clock at night, which was early for her. Her car was parked halfway down the lot, on the side closest to the building. As she walked towards the greenhouses protruding from the back of the building her boots crunched the brittle snow. It was a crisp, cold night and she could see the steam arising from her own breathing. Even though she was bundled to the teeth she still objected to these Wisconsin winters. When she was done here she was going south, south, south. When she was done here…
Later, she remembered clearly this being her last thought.
[i] Molecular genetics – Use of DNA and RNA techniques to improve plants. Sometimes referred to as genetic engineering.
[ii] Developmental regulation – Genes that control the development of the plant.
[iii] Transposable elements – Genes that move from one chromosome to another. Sometimes called “jumping genes.”
GLOBAL BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION!
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QUESTION 27: What is more important, basic or applied science?
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