Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Physicians Are "Science Professionals"

At least that's what the IDiots say [Medical Doctors a Fast Growing Segment of Darwin Doubting Science Professionals].

Who knew? I suppose we shouldn't be surprised if they think an M.D. degree makes you a "science professional." After all, these are some of the same people who think the Earth is only 10,000 years old.

UPDATE: Turns out that many of these medical doctors are actually dentists [Dentists Against Darwin]. Sheesh!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Your View of Evolution

The poll for August asks you to identify the person who comes closest to representing your view of evolution. Check out the left hand margin.

70% of Sandwalk Readers are Atheists

According to the latest poll (see left hand margin) 70% of Sandwalk readers are atheists (PZ would be proud.). 12% are agnostics—I guess Wilkins and Catshark figured out how to vote multiple times. Only 14% are believers. I wish there were more believers, it would make for more lively discussions.

Six of you are uncertain. Why?

Another Bad Review of The Edge of Evolution

PZ Myers draws attention to another review of Michael Behe's new book The Edge of Evolution [Behe gets another thumbs-down]. This review is published in the July issue Discover magazine [The Simplistic Manifesto]. The author is Cory S. Powell.

I disagree with PZ. This is not a good review. Actually, it's a very bad review. Like many of the published reviews of The Edge of Evolution the author seems to have been reading a far different book than the one I read. Powell says,
To reach this conclusion, Behe makes a number of invalid assumptions about how molecules evolve and interact. He alleges that, because many functional adaptations require multiple changes in proteins, two or more mutations must occur together at the same time in the same gene and only rarely can several mutations "sequentially add to each other to improve an organism’s chances of survival." But in fact natural selection does work on transitional forms, as molecules and traits evolve stepwise. Stepwise evolution has been well documented; one good instance of this is the emergence of color vision. Mutations add up little by little, leading to major changes to proteins over time.
The essence of Behe's argument is not that it's impossible to evolve a double mutation if each one is beneficial. The whole point of the book is that stepwise evolution requires that each step is beneficial. The evidence, according to Behe, shows that many cases involving double mutations involve intermediates that are disadvantagous. Thus, the double mutant had to arise in a single step and this is highly unlikely.

Behe isn't always as clear as he should be but he does make it perfectly clear that he accepts the mechanism that Powell describes. Thus, Powells' criticism is inappropriate and this makes it a bad review. Apparently Powell didn't read the section on the evolution of antifreeze proteins in fish (pp. 77-81) where Behe describes each of the many steps that lead to the modern antifreeze proteins.

Each step would have given the fish some protection against freezing water. Thus, Behe concludes,
Even though we haven't directly observed it, the scenario seems pretty convincing as an example of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. It's convincing because each of the steps is tiny&mdash'no bigger than the step that yielded the sickle cell mutation n humans—and each step is an improvement.
The Discovery review points out that complex combinations of mutations can arise in a stepwise manner by standard Darwinian mechanisms. It implies that Behe never thought of this in his book but that's total nonsense. Of course he did. Behe doesn't deny that phenotypes requiring multiple steps can be produced by random mutations, as long as each step is beneficial. The essence of his argument is that it's impossible to generate phenotypes that require multiple random mutations if the intermediates aren't beneficial.

I'm not arguing that Behe is correct. In fact, I'm preparing a series of postings that will challenge some of his ideas. What I'm objecting to is the mischaracterization of Behe's arguments in many of the published reviews. If you're going to criticize Behe then challenge the argument he makes in the book; namely, that most stepwise pathways are impossible because the intermediates are less fit than their parents.

Powell makes another common mistake in his review. He says,
Behe makes another big, related error in the way he interprets how proteins work together. He contends that for even three proteins to evolve in a cooperative association is wildly improbable, "beyond the edge of evolution." Within a protein, five or six amino acids (components of proteins) need to change simultaneously for it to bond with another protein, according to Behe. From this he concludes that it is impossible for proteins’ interaction to evolve, again requiring life to have been programmed for success from the start. Plenty of evidence contradicts this assertion, however. Many proteins within cells interact with other proteins in ways in which only two or three amino acids are critical for binding.
Behe admits that you may only need three or four selected changes in order to generate a new binding site (p. 114). He agrees that the evolution of a single binding site is within reach of evolution but the simultaneous generation of two binding sites is beyond the edge of evolution because the probabilities are so low. The point is that there are many complexes that require the interaction of several different proteins and the intermediates—where only two proteins interact—are not beneficial. Refuting Behe's real arguments requires a little more effort than the superficial criticism of arguments that Behe is not making.

Powell continues,
Such simple binding sites can arise frequently in proteins. And such interactions form the networks that regulate all sorts of physiological processes in cells and organisms. Cell biologists and biochemists are increasingly finding that, in truth, protein interactions and networks are easy to evolve. Behe should know this—but he has a long history of alleging evolutionary impossibilities and ignoring the scientific literature.
Powell is completely missing the point here. Behe does not deny that such complexes exist, nor does he deny that they evolved in the sense that they arose in organisms whose ancestors didn't have them. Once the mutations occurred, they became fixed in the population by natural selection. Furthermore, Behe does not deny that these networks are "easy to evolve." In fact, they are so "easy to evolve" that they cannot be explained by natural selection acting on random mutations as "Darwinism" requires. Thus, mutations cannot be random.

You don't refute Behe by pointing to examples of evolution by common descent or natural selection; this includes evolution of protein complexes. That's not the point. The point is that "Darwinian" evolution, according to Behe, must require small steps where each step is beneficial and this cannot be demonstrated. Indeed, in many cases the intermediates will likely be detrimental. The conclusion is that multiple mutations have to occur simultaneously as in some drug resistance. For most populations the probability of this happening by random mutation is very small. The fact that it happened is evidence of directed mutation, or so Behe thinks.

In order to show that Behe is wrong you have to demonstrate that his understanding of evolution (i.e., "Darwinism") is wrong and this has led him to false conclusions about probabilities. Many reviewers have failed to do this, possibly because they accept Behe's version of Darwinism.

You can read Michael Behe's responses to his reviewers on the Amazon.com site [Michael Behe's Amazon Blog]. I think it's fair to say that Behe makes some good points (and many bad ones) when he accuses his reviewers of misrepresentation.

Virtual Toronto

Here's a site that combines an interactive map of Toronto with images from selected streets [Toronto Virtual City]. The photograph (left) shows the entrance to my building on the University of Toronto campus. The view is looking north from College St.

The satellite view is about two years old. It was taken when the new building was still under construction so the street level image doesn't match the satellite view.

Hmmm ... that reminds me. How come we don't see any more postings where we have to identify a university campus? I forgot which blog that was on.

[Hat Tip: Monado]

Gene Genie #12


Gene Genie #12 has been posted at My Biotech Life [Gene Genie #12 aka The Dozen].

The image is from the article on snpedia [WikiPedia Meets Genetics]. Read about how you can access the personal genome of Jim Watson and Craig Ventor.

Monday's Molecule #37

Today's molecule looks complicated but it has a very simple name. The short common name of this molecule is not sufficient—you have to supply the correct biochemical name that distinguishes this molecule from similar ones found inside all cells. You're more than welcome to supply the complete IUPAC name if you know it.

There's an indirect connection between this Monday's Molecule and Wednesday's Nobel Laureate(s).

The reward (free lunch) goes to the person who correctly identifies the molecule and the Nobel Laureate(s). Previous free lunch winners are ineligible for one month from the time they first collected the prize. There's only one (Marc) ineligible candidates for this Wednesday's reward since many recent winners haven't collected their prize. The prize is a free lunch at the Faculty Club.

Comments will be blocked for 24 hours. Comments are now open.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Canadian Dinosaur Coins

The Royal Canadian Mint has dinosaur coins for sale. Here's a picture of the first one. It shows a fossil Parasaurolophus, a crested, duck-billed species from Alberta.

Future coins will depict Triceratops (2009); Tyrannosaurus rex (2009); and Dromaeosaurus (2010). The face value of the coins is $4 (CDN)—that's currently about $3.80 in US currency but it will be about $4.60 by the time the last coin is issued unless the US dollar stops falling. (Getting out of Iraq would help.)

Only 20,000 coins are being minted. The finish on the "fossil" image is impossible to reproduce exactly so each coin will be slightly different in tone and color. You can buy them for $39.95 (CDN).

How many people know what "D.G. Regina" stands for? (Hint: it's not an atheist slogan.)

The OUT Campaign

RichardDawkin.net has started something called the The OUT Campaign. The goal is to encourage all non-believers (atheists) to come out of the closet and make their rejection of religious superstition known. You're supposed to use the red "A" as a symbol to declare that you are an atheist. Several bloggers have put it on their website.

I do not believe in God. I am an atheist. However, the fact that I don't believe in something is often the only thing I have in common with other atheists. It seems a bit silly to form a club based only on what you don't believe in. It would be like having a club for everyone who doesn't believe in Bigfoot, or Santa Claus.

So, while I am happy to announce my preference for rationalism over superstition and proud to be an atheist. I won't be joining any organization based on a negative. I am a proud member of Skeptics Canada and The Centre for Inquiry, Toronto because they stand for something positive.

[Hat Tip: PZ Myers]

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Aliens Are Coming

Friday's Urban Legend: False

        The following email message is going the rounds.



We know it's false because I'm still here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Theme: Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA)


Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA)

  1. Wellcome Trust Images

  2. A Strange Molecule

  3. Monday's Molecule #35 (ethidium)

  4. DNA Is a Polynucleotide

  5. Tautomers of Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine

  6. Nucleotides Can Adopt Many Different Conformations

  7. Nobel Laureates: Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins

  8. The Chemical Structure of Double-Stranded DNA

  9. The Three-Dimensional Structure of DNA

  10. The Story of DNA (Part 1) Where Rosalind Franklin Teaches Jim and Francis Something about Basic Chemistry

  11. Ethidium Bromide Binds to DNA

  12. Rosalind Franklin Announces the Death of the Helix

  13. Nobel Laureates 1962

  14. The Story of DNA (Part 2)Where Jim and Francis Discover the Secret of Life

  15. DNA With Parallel Strands

  16. Measuring Stacking Interactions

  17. Are You as Smart as a Third Year University Student?

  18. Rosalind Franklin's Birthday

  19. The Watson & Crick Nature Paper (1953)

  20. The Franklin & Gosling Nature Paper (1953)

  21. The Wilkins, Stokes and Wilson Nature paper (1953)

  22. Ethidium Bromide Is a Dangerous Chemical

  23. Jim Watson on the Discovery of the Double Helix

  24. DNA Tatoo

  25. DNA Polymerase I and the Synthesis of Okazaki Fragments

  26. Play the DNA Double Helix Game

The Wilkins, Stokes and Wilson Nature paper (1953)

Wilkins published his work on the structure of DNA in the same issue of Nature as the Watson & Crick paper and the Franklin & Gosling paper. The coauthors on the wilkins paper were A.R. Stokes and H.R. Wilson. They were reunited in 1993 on the 40th anniversary of the publication as shown in the photo. (From left to right: Raymond Gosling, Herbert Wilson, Maurice Wilkins and Alec Stokes.)

A copy of the Wilkins, Stokes and Wilson paper is here.

The title of the paper "Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids" indicates that this is a paper that will discuss details and experimental results. This is a paper that emphasizes the similarities between X-ray diffraction patterns of DNA fibres from calf thymus, wheat germ, herring sperm, human, and T2 bacteriophage. They also look at DNA in vivo by examining intact sperm heads, bacteriophage, and animal viruses. The authors conclude that all these DNA have the same general structure and that it is consistent with the model proposed by Watson & Crick.

The Franklin & Gosling Nature paper (1953)

Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling published their results on the structure of DNA in a Nature paper that immediately followed the famous Watson & Crick paper [The Watson & Crick Nature Paper (1953)]. Franklin had completed the manuscript before traveling up to Cambridge to see the Watson & Crick model of DNA but she was able to make changes to her paper before submitting it in early April 1953. A PDF of the paper as it appeared in the journal is here and the original manuscript is here.

The title of the paper, "Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate," gives us a clue to why this paper has been ignored and the Watson & Crick paper gets all the attention. The Franklin & Gosling paper is full of obscure references and equations and it's significance can only be recognized because of the paper that preceded it in the April 25th, 1953 issue of Nature. The writing style is ponderous and it does not convey any of the sense of excitement found in the Watson & Crick paper [see April 25, 1953: Three papers, three Lessons].

Franklin and Gosling conclude that DNA is "probably helical," the phosphate groups lie on the outside, and there are probably two strands. They state,
Thus our general ideas are not inconsistent with the model proposed by Watson and Crick in the preceding communication.
As is the case in the Watson & Crick paper, papers in the same issue of the journal are not specifically referenced. If you follow the link to the typed manuscript (above) you can see that this sentence was inserted by hand.

Franklin & Gosling acknowledge their colleagues at the end of the paper in the same manner we saw in the Watson & Crick paper.
We are grateful to Prof. J.T. Randall for his interest and to Drs. F.H.C. Crick, A.R. Stokes, and M.H.F. Wilkins for discussion.

The Watson & Crick Nature Paper (1953)

Watson & Crick submitted their paper on the structure of DNA to the journal Nature on April 2, 1953. It was published in the April 25th issue—a remarkably rapid publication even for that time. A PDF of the paper as it appeared in the journal is here. The original typed manuscript is here.

Now that we've learned about the structure of DNA and it's history [Theme: DNA] we're in a position to work through this seminal paper line-by-line. Let's begin with the title and the opening sentence.
A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.
The name of this important molecule is now deoxyribonucleic acid but in 1953 there was no standard nomenclature so Watson & Crick used a common name.

The first sentence is a classic understatement and you can be sure that it's written by Crick and not Watson.
A structure for nucleic acid has already been proposed by Pauling and Corey1. They kindly made their manuscript available to us in advance of publication. Their model consists of three intertwined chains, with the phosphates near the fibre axis, and the bases on the outside. In our opinion, this structure is unsatisfactory for two reasons:

(1) We believe that the material which gives the X-ray diagrams is the salt, not the free acid. Without the acidic hydrogen atoms it is not clear what forces would hold the structure together, especially as the negatively charged phosphates near the axis will repel each other.

(2) Some of the van der Waals distances appear to be too small.
At the time they wrote the paper, Pauling had not seen their model so Watson & Crick were not certain that he would agree with them. (See Linus Pauling's notes taken during the meeting with Watson & Crick on April 8, 1953.) They were obliged to insert some commentary about competing ideas concerning the structure of DNA, especially the Pauling & Cory model that had just been published several weeks earlier in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) [Pauling & Cory, 1953]. (The three-stranded structure of DNA from the Pauling & Cory paper is shown above.)

No doubt Watson & Crick were delighted to be able to correct the famous Linus Pauling. The idea that Pauling might have got the structure wrong because of simple mistakes like packing charged molecules together and not allowing for proper van der Waals distances was too tempting to omit.
Another three-chain structure has also been suggested by Fraser (in the press). In his model the phosphates are on the outside and the bases on the inside, linked together by hydrogen bonds. This structure as described is rather ill-defined, and for this reason we shall not comment on it.
Bruce Fraser published a brief note where he took issue with the Pauling & Cory paper but, as Watson and Crick note, the proposed structure is not described in any detail. There are no figures. The Fraser manuscript is here].
We wish to put forward a radically different structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid. This structure has two helical chains each coiled round the same axis (see diagram). We have made the usual chemical assumptions, namely, that each chain consists of phosphate diester groups joining beta-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3',5' linkages. The two chains (but not their bases) are related by a dyad perpendicular to the fibre axis. Both chains follow right-handed helices, but owing to the dyad the sequences of the atoms in the two chains run in opposite directions. Each chain loosely resembles Furberg's2 model No. 1; that is, the bases are on the inside of the helix and the phosphates on the outside. The configuration of the sugar and the atoms near it is close to Furberg's "standard configuration," the sugar being roughly perpendicular to the attached base. There is a residue on each every 3.4 A. in the z-direction. We have assumed an angle of 36° between adjacent residues in the same chain, so that the structure repeats after 10 residues on each chain, that is, after 34 A. The distance of a phosphorus atom from the fibre axis is 10 A. As the phosphates are on the outside, cations have easy access to them.
Everything important about the structure of DNA is contained in this paragraph except for the base pairs. Note how important it was to confirm that the nucleotide conformation is similar to that which Furberg saw in the structure of cytidylate.

The important points about the backbone chains are that there are only two of them, that they form a regular helix, and the chains run in opposite directions. Recall that it was Crick who recognized the the chains had to be anti-parallel and nobody else, including Franklin and Wilkins, had thought of this.
The structure is an open one, and its water content is rather high. At lower water contents we would expect the bases to tilt so that the structure could become more compact.
This is an oblique reference to the A form of DNA that Rosalind Franklin was working on. The A form is somewhat dehydrated and the helix is more compact. Just as Watson & Crick predict, the bases are tilted in the A form.
The novel feature of the structure is the manner in which the two chains are held together by the purine and pyrimidine bases. The planes of the bases are perpendicular to the fibre axis. They are joined together in pairs, a single base from one chain being hydroden-bonded to a single base from the other chain, so that the two lie side by side with identical z-coordinates. One of the pair must be a purine and the other a pyrimidine for bonding to occur. The hydrogen bonds are made as follows: purine position 1 to pyrimidine position 1; purine position 6 to pyrimidine position.

If it is assumed that the bases only occur in the structure in the most plausible tautomeric forms (that is, with the keto rather than the enol configurations) it is found that only specific pairs of bases can bond together. These pairs are: adenine (purine) with thymine (pyrimidine), and guanine (purine) with cytosine (pyrimidine).
The pairing of A with T and G with C to form base pairs in the middle of the helix is the most important part of the proposed structure. It could not have been determined from the X-ray diffraction data. It could only be deduced by model building. Note that Watson & Crick emphasize the correct tautomeric forms of the bases since most of the textbooks of the day showed the incorrect forms.
In other words, if an adenine forms one member of a pair, on either chain, then on these assumptions the other member must be thymine; similarly for guanine and cytosine. The sequence of bases on a single chain does not appear to be restricted in any way. However, if only specific pairs of bases can be formed, it follows that if the sequence of bases on one chain is given, then the sequence on the other chain is automatically determined.
This is the idea of complementarity that was very much in the air among the insiders. It's an entirely theoretical idea but the fact that the structure conformed made it all that much more elegant a solution. The "beauty" of the structure derives in large part from the fact that it explains so much.
It has been found experimentally3,4 that the ratio of the amounts of adenine to thymine, and the ratio of guanine to cytosine, are always very close to unity for deoxyribose nucleic acid.
This is a reference to the Chargaff ratios.
It is probably impossible to build this structure with a ribose sugar in place of the deoxyribose, as the extra oxygen atom would make too close a van der Waals contact.
An insight that proved to be correct. The Watson & Crick structure explains one more thing that none of the other structures could explain.
The previously published X-ray data5,6 on deoxyribose nucleic acid are insufficient for a rigorous test of our structure. So far as we can tell, it is roughly compatible with the experimental data, but it must be regarded as unproved until it has been checked against more exact results. Some of these are given in the following communications. We were not aware of the details of the results presented there when we devised our structure, which rests mainly though not entirely on published experimental data and stereochemical arguments.
Watson & Crick know full well that their structure is compatible with published data from Astbury (ref. 5) and Wilkins & Randall (ref. 6). They also know that some of the key features of their model, such as base pairing, cannot be verified by X-ray crystallographic data from DNA fibers fibres.

They make reference to the accompanying papers by Franklin & Gosling and by Wilkins, Stokes, and Wilson ("following communications"). This was a standard way of referring to papers that were in press but Watson & Crick have been criticized for not mentioning the authors by name, especially Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.

The last sentence has been widely interpreted as somewhat disingenuous. Of course they were aware of the results, including many of the details that had not been published (see below). A great deal of the structure of the backbones was informed by the results from Franklin's unpublished X-ray images of B-DNA. It would have been much better if Watson & Crick had stated here—as a personal communication—that they had received information from Wilkins and Franklin.
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
Another very famous sentence from the paper and another classic example of understatement. Watson & Crick follow up on this with another Nature paper that describes how DNA replication should work. The fact that an obvious mechanism of replicating DNA is apparent from looking at the structure is another example of its beauty and elegance. These were the sorts of thing that made the structure so appealing to those who were working on these problems. On the other hand, they meant nothing to most biologists, many of whom were not inclined to believe the Watson & Crick structure when it was first published. Remember that for most biologists this was the first time they were confronted with the idea that DNA was important. Watson & Crick had know for years that DNA was the secret of life but the rest of the world still thought DNA was unimportant.
Full details of the structure, including the conditions assumed in building it, together with a set of coordinates for the atoms, will be published elsewhere
The "details" were published in The Proceeding of the Royal Society in January, 1954.
We are much indebted to Dr. Jerry Donohue for constant advice and criticism, especially on interatomic distances. We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers at King’s College, London. One of us (J. D. W.) has been aided by a fellowship from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
One of the myths that has grown up about the discovery of the double helix is that Watson & Crick never acknowledged Franklin and Wilkins. This myth is due, in part, to the fact that Wilkins and Franklin are not mentioned in the body of the paper where it would have been appropriate (see above). However, they are clearly mentioned in the acknowledgments even though the reference seems to contradict their earlier statement about being unaware of unpublished results.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nobel Laureate: Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1907.
"in recognition of his work on the role played by protozoa in causing diseases"

Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran (1845 - 1922) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering that malaria was caused by a protozoan that infects red blood cells. There are many who believe that Laveran should have been recognized before Ronald Ross who received the Nobel Prize in 1902 [Nobel Laureate: Ronald Ross]. The Malaria Site has a very nice description of Laveran and his work [Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran].

The presentation speech was supposed to have been given by Professor C. Sundberg of the Royal Caroline Institute on December 10, 1907 but owing to the death of of King Oscar II two days earlier, the award ceremonies for 1907 were canceled. The text was published.
The Staff of Professors at the Caroline Institute have this year awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Dr. Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran, for his work on the importance of the protozoa as pathogens.

The Staff has thus chosen to single him out not only as the founder of medical protozoology, a branch of medicine that has reached a striking level of development in recent years; but also as the man responsible for experiments and discoveries - followed up until recently - which ensure his continued pre-eminence in this field.

To appreciate properly the importance of Laveran's investigations into the protozoan causes of disease, one must remember the state of this branch of science at the time of Laveran's earliest work, i.e. about 1880. The body of knowledge relating to the causes of infectious diseases was making rapid progress at that time in the field of bacteriology. Pasteur's «Theory of Germs» had provided the key to the riddle of fermentation processes, and its relevance to infectious diseases had been grasped. So several pathogenic bacteria had been discovered by 1880: those of anthrax and relapsing fever; other germs, such as those causing tuberculosis, glanders, pneumonia, typhoid fever, diphtheria, tetanus, Asiatic cholera, traumatic fevers, etc. were discovered one after another during the years 1880-90. All these germs were found to belong to the last category of the plant kingdom, the bacteria.

As a result, it was natural to look for the cause of marsh fevers, like malaria, among micro-organisms of that sort. Indeed, several distinguished bacteriologists believed themselves to be on the trail of such a microbe. We recall the so-called malaria bacillus of Klebs and Tommasi-Crudeli, found in the ooze of the Pontine Marshes.

When Laveran, in 1879, began his research at the military hospital of Bône in Algeria, he only set himself the task of explaining the role of the particles of black pigment found in the blood of people suffering from malaria. After 1850, when these particles, called melanins, were discovered, methods had been discussed of determining whether they were only to be found in patients suffering from malaria, or were present in other diseases as well. Laveran first set about solving this problem, which was particularly important to the diagnosis of malaria. During his investigations, Laveran not only found the particles he had been looking for: he also found some entirely unknown bodies with certain characteristics which led him to suppose that parasites were involved. His initial investigations were carried out on fresh blood without using chemical reactions or any staining process. He was none the less successful, using this primitive method of examination, in distinguishing and describing most of the more important forms adopted by these new bodies, which varied so much in their appearance. In 1882, he moved the scene of his investigations for a while to the dangerous marshy regions of Italy. There he again found the same bodies in the blood of people suffering from marsh fever, and his hope of having found the malarial parasite became a certainty. Laveran published his first great work on these parasites, Traité des fièvres palustres, in 1884. In this, he draws on 480 examined cases of malaria.

This work is the foundation on which subsequent investigations of marsh fever are based. Laveran showed that the parasites, during their development in the red blood corpuscles, destroy them; and the red pigment in the corpuscles is changed into the melanin particles mentioned above. He described all the main forms of this polymorphic parasite, even those which have subsequently been found to be different developmental phases of the parasite. Continuing his work, Laveran concerned himself in the first place with the important problem of the existence of these parasites outside the patient's body. To this end he examined the water, soil, and air of the marshlands, hoping to find the parasite. His perseverance was unrewarded. We should not, however, fail to recognize the merit of this work, despite its negative outcome, since it has fundamentally aided subsequent research. As far as Laveran was concerned, these apparently fruitless investigations led him to the conclusions which he expresses in the book of 1884, and has also maintained on a number of occasions, such as the Congress of Hygiene at Budapest (1894): that the marsh-fever parasite must undergo one phase of its development in mosquitoes, and be inoculated into humans by their bites. Laveran based his conclusion not only on the negative experiments already mentioned, but also on an analogy with the mode of transmission of the Filaria worm, which, according to Manson, is mosquito-borne. When Laveran was recalled from Algeria to Paris, and so forced to interrupt his work on malaria, he had already clearly formulated the problems that had first to be solved in this field.

The new parasite discovered by Laveran was not a bacterium. Although it was impossible to classify accurately, certain resemblances to other micro-organisms put it in the same group as the protozoa. We know how difficult it is to demonstrate the presence of malarial parasites in blood which has not been treated beforehand with the stains now in general use, but still unknown at the time of Laveran's discoveries, which make these small parasites more readily visible; so one can appreciate at their true value the insight and keen eye of Laveran, who never allowed himself to be misled by the simultaneous successes of bacteriology, or discouraged by the opposition met with from several quarters, notably from workers studying marsh fever.

However, little by little Laveran's theories made headway, and it can be said that the year 1889 marks the date when his discovery finally achieved recognition.

When Laveran had to leave the marshlands, he saw himself deprived of materials indispensable if he were to continue working on the still unanswered questions, i.e. those dealing with the parasite's developmental cycle, and its existence away from the patient. He then tried to solve them by an indirect approach, by studying animal parasites, especially those of birds: these parasites had only recently been discovered and showed resemblances to the malarial parasites. The numerous observations Laveran made in the course of this research cannot be indicated here: they belong by rights to the specialist sphere of interest. Now, as always happens after a notable discovery, workers multiplied in the new field. Some of the many workers who were able to continue Laveran's work on the spot, in marshy areas, were destined to reach the goal before Laveran by the indirect approach which he had indicated. Thus, in 1897 the American Mac Callum elucidated the sexual reproduction of these parasites; and, in 1898, the impressive work of Ronald Ross, the Nobel Prize winner for 1902, brought the mosquito theory from the realm of hypothesis into that of established fact. One can imagine the interest with which Laveran must have received the preparations sent to him by Ross from India in May 1898, and the joy with which he confirmed that Ross was in fact dealing with malaria parasites in the mosquitoes he was investigating.

Laveran's discoveries concerning malaria had the additional effect of focussing direct and vigorous attention on the hypothesis that other infectious diseases could be brought about similarly by protozoa. In the tropics especially, but in other areas as well, diseases have been recognized for a long time among men and animals, which are similar to malaria in many respects, such as impoverishment of the blood, loss of strength, and associated fever, but which, unlike malaria, are not affected by the classical treatment, quinine, and are clearly shown by the absence of marsh-fever parasites not to belong to the same group as the marsh sicknesses. Since 1890 a whole series of parasites causing these diseases has been described. Once, thanks to Laveran, attention was drawn to the protozoa as agents of disease, discoveries of such protozoa took place in rapid succession. Among diseases due to protozoa, the trypanosomiases take precedence. The list of these diseases alone is long, and we will mention only the scourges known as Nagana, Surra, Caderas sickness, and the Galziekte of Equatorial Africa, etc. which ravage large parts of Africa, Asia and South America, attacking various members of the Bovidae, horses, camels, donkeys, etc. as well as the big game, antelopes, deer, etc. sometimes wiping out great herds. All these infections are caused by corkscrew-shaped micro-parasites, called trypanosomes, and are transmitted to animals by various types of biting flies. However important these diseases may be to Man from the point of view of commerce and nutrition, yet, among all the trypanosomiases, the endemic disease generally known as «sleeping-sickness» takes precedence from the medical point of view. The sleeping-sickness trypanosome was discovered in 1901 by Forde in a European ship's captain who had navigated the river Gambia for several years. Forde does not seem to have examined the parasite in detail. Later, the same case was studied by Dutton, and following on his reports on the parasite and the disease, an expedition was sent from Liverpool and London to carry the investigation further. This expedition also solved the first problems relating to the disease. There is certainly much one could say about these diseases; unfortunately we may not dwell on them here. Let us rather take a quick look at the part played by Laveran in the elucidation of these problems.

It can be said, it seems to us, that Laveran took up these problems again at the exact point where circumstances had forced him to interrupt his own research on malaria. He had discovered the parasites for the latter group of diseases, but others, notably Golgi and Ross, followed up the biological investigation of the parasites. As far as the trypanosomiases are concerned, the opposite holds good: the parasites were discovered by other investigators, who were able to study the investigations on the spot in a number of different places, but Laveran, more than anyone else, extended our understanding of the finer points of the morphology, biology, and pathological activity of the parasites. He made this work possible by having many artificially-infected experimental animals brought to his Paris laboratory, as well as larger animals which had contracted the disease naturally. Not content with this great quantity of material, he extended the scope of his investigations even further by studying the trypanosomes of rats, birds, fishes and reptiles; and these investigations often threw light on the true pathogenic trypanosomes at the same time. The trypanosomes thus studied and described by Laveran number about thirty; he discovered a greater number of new species than any other worker we know of. In addition, he discovered a new genus of trypanosomes, the trypanoplasmias.

Laveran published his discoveries, sometimes in collaboration with other workers, in many articles and annotations, and later, in 1904, he gathered them together in one great work, so far unique of its kind: Les trypanosomes et trypanosomiasis.

Still more recently, in 1906, there appeared the accounts of his research on the parasites causing the malignant Mbori, Souma, and Baléri diseases, which are widespread among the Bovidae, camels and horses of the Upper Niger.

It is obviously impossible to compress into a few words the rich content of all his writings, his investigations, and his numerous discoveries. In them we find technical inventions for the study of parasites, morphology, theories of infection, accounts of parasite reproduction, experiments in immunization, etc. These works are proof that the creator of protozoan pathology continues to be its leading authority. For these reasons and many others that could be added, the Staff of Professors of the Caroline Institute have pleasure in awarding this year's Nobel Prize to this pioneer of science, this tireless benefactor of humanity.

Nobel Laureate: Ronald Ross

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1902.
"for his work on malaria, by which he has shown how it enters the organism and thereby has laid the foundation for successful research on this disease and methods of combating it"

Ronald Ross (1857 - 1932) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering that the malaria parasite was transmitted by mosquitoes. You can read a detailed description of Ross' work on The Malaria Site [Sir Ronald Ross]. He was a remarkable man.

This Nobel Prize—only the second one to be awarded—was controversial. Read the presentation speech by Professor the Count K.A.H. Mörner of the Royal Caroline Institute below and note the mention of several other workers, including Patrick Manson, Ross' mentor, and Alphonse Laveran, who discovered the malaria parasite. There are many who believe that Manson and Laveran should have received part of the prize. Laveran was recognized five years later when he received his own Nobel Prize [Nobel Laureate: Laveran].
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Among the stipulations Alfred Nobel set forth in his will, on which the Nobel Foundation is based, that concerning the international character of the prizes occupies an important place. This proves not only his love of mankind and his wish that we should regard one another as brethren, but it is also a witness of his extensive and prescient views more especially concerning medical science and its advancement.

All the branches of medical science and their promotors in different countries have the same ultimate aim, that of gaining the most thorough knowledge possible both about the human body and the processes in it, as also about noxious influences and the means of their prevention. All medical workers unite in pursuing that aim and in doing so feel members of one great fellowship. Nevertheless, the different fields of medical science lie at such a distance one from another, that the individual worker on many occasions must look afar in the attempt to get a thorough view of the progress of the work.

With respect to diseases they are often of different kinds and import in divers regions of the world. For instance, malaria is nowadays of little importance here in Sweden, whereas it is a veritable scourge in other regions. For elucidating this question by an instance from a European country, it may be mentioned that in Italy of late the annual average of deaths by malaria has been about 15,000, and the yearly number of cases is calculated as about two millions. Still more overwhelming are the numbers from India. Of the British Army, amounting to about 178,000 men, close upon 76,000 men were admitted into hospital for malarial fever in the year 1897. In this single year the mortality from «fever» among the civil population in India amounted to a total of more than five millions. It is moreover a well-known fact, that malaria dominates so severely in vast territories that it causes the very greatest difficulties for the cultivation of countries which, but for the malaria, are specially favoured by Nature.

The question of the real nature of malaria, its origin, its manner of entering the organism, and the consequent question of the possibility of preventing this disease, are all of the greatest importance and have from remote ages occupied investigators, for a long time without success.

A very important discovery concerning malaria was made - now long ago, more than two decades - when Laveran, a French army surgeon, ascertained, that malaria is a parasitic disease, caused by a very low form of animal life, that he found in the blood of malarious patients. By this discovery the name of Laveran has for ever become renowned in the history of malaria.

Research about malaria in the last two decades has chiefly been based on Laveran's discovery. Science has thereby been enriched with many an important fact. We have gained knowledge of the different forms of the malarial parasite in blood. We have found, that it differs in the special forms of the disease. We have learned the relations between the parasite and the red blood corpuscles, in which it is chiefly to be found. We have furthermore been able to survey the manner in which it multiplies in the blood; the Italian investigator Golgi has in this respect revealed the remarkable fact that the periodicity of the malarial attacks depends on the appearance of new generations of the parasite in the blood. We have moreover found allied parasites in the blood of several mammals and birds.

The important question, previously mentioned, as to the possibility of the malarial parasite living outside the body, and its way of obtaining entrance into the blood remained unanswered. For some reasons, among others owing to various facts that were known concerning other parasites of an animal nature, it was supposed that the malarial parasite in some way leaves the blood so as to exist in some form in nature, probably as a parasite of some other being. As nothing indicated that the parasite was to be found in the secretions or excretions, the supposition lay near at hand, that suctorial insects would assist in carrying the parasite to a place, where it had to pass the aforementioned part of its life-cycle. Attention was therefore directed to the mosquito, which was thus supposed to spread the malarious infection. The importance of the mosquito in this respect has now been proved. In this case, as in several others, tradition anticipated science; it is even said, that negroes in the East-Africa use the same name for the mosquito and for malaria.

The mosquito theory of malaria was introduced to science by King no less than 18 years ago. The theory, however, remained a conjecture without other evidence than some suggestions given by epidemiological observations. The attempts made in Italy in the early nineties with the view of examining the theory experimentally, and, eventually, proving it to be true, gave results that seemed anything but encouraging; being far more likely to prevent the investigators from following this line.

A person we deem of great merit concerning the solution of the problem is the English investigator, Patrick Manson. It was a change in the appearance of the parasite, which was sometimes observed to occur, as the blood is shed, that Manson especially regarded as the first stage of its life outside the body. This phenomenon has afterwards been shown by the American pathologist Mac Callum to imply an act of reproduction of the parasite. Manson was moreover guided by his experience regarding another parasite of the blood, a little worm, filaria, the transference of which from one part of its life-cycle to another he had found effected by the mosquito, and more particularly by special species of the mosquito. By his views set forth on malaria, and by exciting expectation that the solution of the malaria problem was to be found in the direction he indicated, Manson gave an impulse to the further testing of the mosquito-theory and at last to its being established. Manson, who lived in England, had no opportunity of taking up the experimental work of the problem. The solution came from India.

It was an English army surgeon in India, Ronald Ross, who, impressed by Manson's induction, undertook the experimental testing of the matter. Critically arranging his experiments, he caused mosquitoes that were hatched from larvae in the laboratory, to bite malarious patients, and endeavoured to follow the parasite in the body of the mosquitoes. The results of the first two years' labour, although assiduous and scrupulous, gave little promise of success. But in August 1897 all at once he made vast progress towards his aim. While experimenting with another, less common species of mosquito, in the wall of its stomach he found bodies that very probably were an evolutionary stage of the human malarial parasite.

Ross, being prevented by circumstances from pursuing his plan in studying the malarial parasite of man, continued his work with an allied malarial parasite of birds. The result was that not only could he confirm his discovery concerning human malaria, as he found corresponding facts for avian malaria, but he also in a short time succeeded in revealing the further development of the avian malarial parasite in the body of the mosquito.

This development is briefly as follows. In the stomach of the mosquito a process of fecundation at first takes place; the form of the parasite, thereby produced, penetrates the stomach wall, embedded in which it grows to button-like structures projecting into the body-cavity. In these structures a large number of elongated organisms, «sporozoites», are formed. On the consequent bursting of the said structures the «sporozoites» escape into the general body-cavity of the mosquito, and accumulate in the salivary or poison glands, which are in connection with the proboscis with which the bites of the insect are inflicted. A bite of the mosquito, at that time, inoculates the parasite, and if the individual is susceptible to the parasite, this develops in the manner known and described long ago.

Ross's discoveries into malaria were immediately followed by a series of important works.

Thus the Italian investigator, Grassi, in association with his colleagues, Bignami and Bastianelli, proved that the human malarial parasite not only in its early stage, already detected by Ross, but also in its further development undergoes the same evolution that Ross described for the growth of the avian malarial parasite in the body of the mosquito. Grassi also has precisely indicated the species of mosquito that are of import for the malaria of man. Many valuable works, besides these, have been issued by Ross, by the Italian investigators, by Robert Koch and by many others, works, by which not only our knowledge of the malarial parasite has been enlarged, but this knowledge has been made useful in combating and preventing malarial disease.

The eminent scientific value of Ross's work, its importance as a basis for the success of the recent investigations into malaria, its rich contents as regards the art of medical practice and especially hygiene, will be obvious from the above.

It is owing to these merits, that the Professorial Staff of the Royal Caroline Institute has decided to allot the Medical Nobel Prize of this year to Ronald Ross.

Professor Ronald Ross. In announcing that the Professorial Staff of the Royal Caroline Institute has decided to award to you the Medical Nobel Prize of this year on account of your work on malaria, in the name of the said Institute I congratulate you on your investigations. By your discoveries you have revealed the mysteries of malaria. You have enriched science with facts of great biological interest and of the very greatest medical importance. You have founded the work of preventing malaria, this veritable scourge of many countries.

Plasmodium falciparum Causes Malaria

Malaria is caused by a small protozoan parasite called Plasmodium falciparum (left). The Plasmodium is a single-celled organism with a complex life cycle. It is classified in the nebulous Protist kingdom within the phylum Apicomplexa [NCBI Taxonomy].

The life cycle is described in many places but one of the best comes from the Applied Biosystems website.
Human malaria is caused by infection with intracellular protozoan parasites of the genus Plasmodium that are transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes. Four species of Plasmodium infect humans: P. falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. malariae, with P. falciparum accounting for the majority of infections and being the most lethal. The causative agent of malaria was discovered in 1880 by Charles Alphonse Louis Laveran (Ref.1).

Plasmodium falciparum is exclusively transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes, mainly from members of the Anopheles gambiae complex. The parasites have a complicated life cycle that requires a vertebrate host for the asexual cycle and a female Anopheles mosquito for completion of the sexual cycle. Infection of humans by P. falciparum is initiated by injection of sporozoites into the bloodstream by an Anopheles mosquito (Ref.2). During a mosquito blood meal,infectious Sporozoites in the mosquito's saliva enter the host bloodstream and invade its hepatocytes. While some evidence indicates that Sporozoites are first trapped by Kupffer cells and then transported to hepatocytes,other findings suggest that Sporozoites home to hepatocytes directly. Sporozoite reaches liver via bloodstream in 30 minutes....

In the hepatocytes asexual multiplication (exoerythrocytic schizogony) occurs, leading to the production of several thousand merozoites. In 1 to 2 weeks, a single sporozoite can give rise to 30,000 merozoites. During this pre-erythrocytic stage,no illness is induced by malaria. In P. vivax infections, which are characterized by relapses,a dormant stage, called the hypnozoite, remains in the liver. From this stage relapsing infections may occur at a later stage. P. falciparum infection relapses do not occur. It is, therefore, assumed that the sporozoites of this species develop uniformly producing pre-erythocytic schizonts at the same time and these schizonts, once formed,discharge all the merozoites simultaneously; do not remain dormant as in P. vivax (Ref.3).

These Merozoites are released into the bloodstream and invade erythrocytes. The asexual erythrocytic cycle begins when a single merozoite invades a host red blood cell and is enclosed within a parasitophorous vacuole,separate from the host cell cytoplasm. Three morphologically distinct phases are then observed. The ring stage,lasting approximately 24 h in P. falciparum, accounts for about half of the intraerythrocytic cycle, but it is metabolically nondescript. It is followed by the trophozoite stage; a very active period during which most of the red blood cells cytoplasm is consumed. Finally,parasites undergo 4-5 rounds of binary divisions during the schizont stage, producing 8-36 new merozoites that burst from the host cell to invade new erythrocytes,beginning another round of infection. This phase of the infection (erythrocytic schizogony) is responsible for malaria pathogenesis. Much of the morbidity and mortality associated with malaria is caused by the rupture of iRBCs (Infected Red Blood Cells) during the asexual reproductive stages of the parasite. Intense fever, occurring in 24-72 hour intervals, is accompanied by nausea, headaches,and muscular pain among other symptoms. The characteristic fever spike has been correlated with incremental rises in serum levels of TNF-Alpha associated with the release of parasite proteins during erythrocytic rupture. Furthermore,a variety of potentially fatal symptoms,including liver failure, renal failure,and cerebral disease are associated with untreated P. falciparum. These symptoms are consequences of the unique ability of the parasite to bind to endothelial surfaces; this adherence inhibits circulation and causes localized oxygen-deprivation and sometimes hemorrhaging. It has been proposed that ICAM1 (Intercellular Adhesion Molecule-1), E-selectin,VCAM1 (Vascular Cell Adhesion Molecule-1), and CSA (Chondroitin Sulfate-A), and CD36 are some of the surface molecules responsible for parasite-endothelial adherence (Ref.4).

Instead of producing new schizonts, some merozoites, after invasion of the erythrocyte, arrest their cell cycle and develop into male (micro) or female (macro) gametocytes, the forms that are required for transmission to the mosquito (asexual parasites do not survive ingestion by the insect). Inside the mid-gut of the mosquito, fertilization occurs, producing zygotes, which develop into ookinetes. The ookinetes form oocysts, which then grow and divide and rupture to give rise to sporozoites, which migrate to the salivary glands. Then the infectious cycle of malaria can repeat itself (Ref.5). While all four species of Plasmodium have a haemolytic component ie. when a new brood of parasites break out of the red blood cell this is usually of little consequence. The exception is falciparum malaria where the parasites multiply very rapidly and may occupy 30% or more of the red blood cells causing a very significant level of haemolysis. One reason for this is that P. falciparum invades red cells of all ages whereas P. vivax and P. ovale prefer younger red cells, while P. malariae seeks mature red cells. Malaria places an increasing burden on global public health resources. In the face of growing resistance of the malaria parasite to available antimalarial drugs, there is a need for new drugs and the identification of new chemotherapeutic targets (Ref.6).

Image Credits:

Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria in humans, needs a living host in …. [Photograph]. Retrieved July 25, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/ebc/art-55545

Life Cycle diagram is from Don Forsdyke.

The red blood cell image is from The Scripps Research Institute.

Quinine and Malaria

Monday's Molecule #36 was quinine, an alkaloid isolated from the bark of Chichona, or quinine tree [Cinchona pubescens]. The tree originally grew only on the eastern slopes of the Andes in South America where the bark was widely used by the natives to prevent malaria and other diseases. Following the discovery of its amazing properties by Europeans, it was transported to other tropical parts of the world.

Quinine works by attacking the parasite that causes malaria. This protozoan parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, feeds on red blood cells. It can easily digest hemoglobin but can't handle the heme groups that are released when the protein is degraded. These heme groups are toxic to the parasite so they are stored in an inactive form inside a membrane-bound organelle called a digestive vacuole. Quinine interferes with this storage causing the hemes to remain free where they poison the cell. The exact mechanism is unknown but it is known that quinine has to enter the vacuole in order to be effective. The most likely mechanism is quinine binding to the heme molecule to prevent its conversion to the inactive form celled haemozoin.

Resistance to quinine and related compounds is usually due to mutations in transporter proteins that are found in the membranes of the digestive vacuole. The mutations prevent the accumulation of quinine in the vacuole.

Quinine is present in tonic water that was widely consumed in the last century to ward off malaria. The quinine imparts a bitter taste to tonic water so, as the story goes, British tourists used to dilute it with gin to hide the taste. The gin & tonic mixture became quire popular.

As a matter of fact, quinine is still present in modern bottles of tonic water. This can be easily demonstrated by shining ultraviolet light on a bottle of tonic water since quinine is fluorescent (left). To see how much quinine you get in a gin & tonic see [The Half-Decent Phamaceutical Chemistry Blog].

Quinine was synthesized after World War II but it isn't economical to make the drug and the only effective source is the bark of Chichona. However, a more effective drug called chloroquine (below) became widely available after World War II and it has mostly replaced quinine as the preferred drug against malaria.

Rosalind Franklin's Birthday

Today (July 25th) would have been Rosalind Franklin's 87th birthday if she had not died of cancer on April 16, 1958 [Rosalind Franklin: Wikipedia].

Rosalind Franklin's role in the elucidation of the structure of DNA was unknown and unappreciated, outside of a small group of friends, until the publication of Jim's Watson's book The Double Helix in 1968) [see The Story of DNA (Part 1) and The Story of DNA (Part 2)]. Watson revealed to the public the role that Franklin had played in the events leading up to April 1953. The picture he painted of "Rosy" (a name she never used) was not flattering and it was widely interpreted as misogynistic (probably unfairly, since Watson treats both men and women with an equal amounts of disrespect). The legend arose that Rosalind Franklin had been cheated out of the Nobel Prize.

As it turns out, Watson only met Franklin on a few brief occasions (three?) and got most of his information from Maurice Wilkins who was not on good terms with her.

The myth of Franklin as a persecuted woman scientist was reinforced by Anne Sayre in her 1975 book Rosalind Franklin & DNA. Today it is generally acknowledged that Sayre was a bit overzealous and that Franklin was not treated badly just because she was a women. This does not mean that she wasn't treated badly. Her problems with Maurice Wilkins are well-known and they stem from a personality conflict where there's enough blame on both sides to rule out a simple persecution story.

The idea that Franklin deserves more credit for the discovery of DNA has been discussed at length in numerous books and articles since the publication of Sayre's polemical story in 1975. The most notable contributions are an appendix to Horace Judson's book The Eight Day of Creation when it was republished in 1996. In that appendix, titled In defense of Rosalind Franklin: The Myth of the wronged heroine, Judson attempts to sort out the myth from the reality. He concludes that Rosalind Franklin was unlucky and although she was close to figuring out the structure of DNA, she would not have got it on her own because she had abandoned the project entirely by the end of February 1953. Here's Judson's conclusion.
Franklin was poignantly unlucky. She had no collaborator. It's been said that Watson was her collaborator. She was stubborn—a virtue in science but with limitations, for she was too unwilling to speculate early on about the helical evidence, too set on analyzing the A form by classical mathematical means, and far too rigidly opposed to building models. She was doubly unlucky in Wilkins. Their preclusive scientific incompatibility stiffened her approach. He, shut out, had no understanding scientific auditors but Watson and Crick.

Could she have got it first? She had not perceived that the backbones ran in opposite directions. She had not started building the B form as a double helix and so had yet to even encounter the problem of fitting the bases inside. Furthermore she was moving. Randall, mean-spiritedly, no doubt set on by Wilkins, made her agree to wind up and publish what she had on DNA, then leave the problem behind. And yet, and still, she had been so close, two half-steps away, that she saw at once that the Watson and Crick structure was essentially correct. Watson was surprised at her gracious assent.
(But see Klug (2003) The Discovery of the DNA double helix for a slightly different opinion. Klug was a collaborator and good friend of Franklin's after she moved to Birbeck College.)

The definitive biography—as of today—is the one published by Brenda Maddox in 2002 (Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA). Maddox sorts out the various controversies and unweaves the myth of the persecuted woman from the fact of the unappreciated and competent scientist. With the publication of Maddox's book we begin to see that Franklin's contribution was important and should have been acknowledged more openly by Crick, Watson, and Wilkins. At the same time, we see that Watson, Crick and Franklin remained (became?) friends after the structure was solved. This is not the sort of thing you expect from someone who felt wronged by the evens leading up to February 1953.

Maddox has an article in Nature on the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Watson & Crick paper in 2003 [The double helix and the "wronged heroine"]. She concludes,
Belated credit

Watson and Crick seem never to have told Franklin directly what they subsequently have said from public platforms long after her death — that they could not have discovered the double helix of DNA in the early months of 1953 without her work. This is all the more surprising in view of the close friendship that developed among the three of them — Watson, Crick and Franklin — during the remaining years of her life. During this time, she was far happier at non-sectarian Birkbeck than she ever was at King's, and led a spirited team of researchers studying tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).

From 1954 until months before her death in April 1958, she, Watson and Crick corresponded, exchanged comments on each other's work on TMV, and had much friendly contact. At Wood's Hole, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1954 Watson offered Franklin a lift across the United States as he was driving to her destination, the California Institute of Technology. In the spring of 1956 she toured in Spain with Crick and his wife Odile and subsequently stayed with them in Cambridge when recuperating from her treatments for ovarian cancer. Characteristically, she was reticent about the nature of her illness. Crick told a friend who asked that he thought it was "something female".

In the years after leaving King's, Franklin published 17 papers, mainly on the structure of TMV (including four in Nature). She died proud of her world reputation in the research of coals, carbons and viruses. Given her determination to avoid fanciful speculation, she would never have imagined that she would be remembered as the unsung heroine of DNA. Nor could she have envisaged that King's College London, where she spent the unhappiest two years of her professional career, would dedicate a building — the Franklin–Wilkins building — in honour of her and the colleague with whom she had been barely on speaking terms.
Lynne Elkin wrote a brief review of the Rosalind Franklin controversy for Physics Today in 2003, after the publication of the Maddox book [Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix]. The review emphasizes all of the complex twist and turns of this complicated story. She concludes with a sound piece of advice for all those who would exploit Rosalind Franklin to their own ends.
It is important to stop demeaning Franklin's reputation, but equally important to avoid obscuring her more difficult personality traits. She should not be put on a pedestal as a symbol of the unfair treatment accorded to many women in science. Her complicated relationship with Wilkins has been treated in overly simplistic ways. Distorted accounts, which inaccurately portray the three Nobel Prize winners as well as Franklin, are unfortunate and unnecessary: There was enough glory in the work of the four to be shared by them all.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

How Not to Get Elected in America

The chart below was published in The New York Times [God ’08: Whose, and How Much, Will Voters Accept?]. It's pretty scary when you think about it.

The numbers indicate the percentage of respondents who would said they would be less (or more) likely to vote for a candidate with the indicated traits. The data is from a Pew survey in February that was already blogged. It's worth a second look.

I can tell you one thing for certain—America is never going to have a President who is gay, atheist, 75 years old, and never before held public office. On the other hand, if you're a Christian and long time Washington politician with previous military service, then you're a shoo-in.

[Hat Tip: Alex Palazzo at The Daily Transcript]

There is no God

PZ found this first [Hide the guillotines, they're on to us!]. And you wonder why we call them IDiots?

The good part is that these people have finally realized that this is a fight between rationalism and superstition. At least I thought it would be a good thing before I saw this video. Who in their right mind would have associated rationalism with guillotines?

One School System Network [OSSN]

We learned today that the Progressive Conservative Party in Ontario is committed to expanding public funding of faith based schools [Faith-based school funding hailed by some]. According to the announcement by PC leader John Tory, the party would move rapidly to initiate funding of Christian, Muslim, and Hebrew schools.

John Tory, leader of the PCs, announced yesterday that former PC premier Bill Davis will look at ways to commit public money to faith-based schools if Tory becomes premier after the Oct. 10 vote.

The 53,000 students who attend schools outside the public and Catholic school systems deserve funding in the interest of fairness, Tory said. The funding for faith-based schools is part of his party platform.

Davis is to make recommendations and pilot programs could begin next fall. One of Davis's last acts as premier was to extend funding past Grade 10 for the province's Roman Catholic schools.
Ontario has two publicly funded school systems; a public school system and a separate school system. The "separate" schools are Roman Catholic schools. The "public" schools were originally Protestant but they evolved to become secular and open to students of all religions. The two school system was inherited from the time when Quebec and Ontario joined to form a single country (1867). The deal was that the Roman Catholic schools in Quebec would be funded and this was extended to cover students in Ontario.

Up until now, I have not been an advocate for change because the separate school system is not much different than the public school system in spite of the fact that it is Roman Catholic. However, it has always been difficult to resist funding other religious schools because we are already giving public money to the Roman Catholic schools.

Now that this is about to become a major election issue I've decided to take a more active position in advocating the abolition of the Roman Catholic School boards and the amalgamation of all students into a single school system. If you feel the same way then I urge you to support the One School System Network (OSSN). Many of the members of this groups also belong to the Center for Inquiry (CFI).

Here's part of the OSSN vision statement.
The organizations represented by the One School System Network [OSSN] are united in the conviction that:

Ontario's publicly funded school system brings students of all backgrounds together in an environment that fosters mutual respect and understanding while respecting their fundamental equality and helping them to realize their full potential as citizens.

To realize that vision, OSSN seeks the establishment of a single secular school system for each official language, namely English and French public school boards.

Furthermore, OSSN seeks the elimination of costly duplication in the Ontario school system in order to minimize infrastructure costs and to maximize the opportunities for student development.
Publicly funded schools in Ontario shall not discriminate on the basis of religion in any form including: school environment, enrollment of students, opportunities for all students, evaluation of students, employment and advancement of teachers and all other school board personnel, adherence to Ministry of Education curriculum guidelines including courses in World and Comparative Religion.
If the status quo isn't possible then in my opinion we have no choice but to terminate funding of Roman Catholic schools. The latest pools show that 58% of Ontario residents want a single school system. Let's give it to them.

Are You as Smart as a Third Year University Student? Q1

Over on the thread The Chemical Structure of Double-Stranded DNA we're having a little discussion about exam questions related to the structure of DNA and reading frames.

I thought it might be fun to post some multiple choice questions from old exams to see if the Sandwalk readers are as smart as my third year molecular biology students. Here's a question from 1999.

Examples of overlapping genes that are transcribed in opposite directions (i.e., opposite strands serve as templates) are very rare in biology. Part of the coding region from the middle of two such overlapping genes is shown below. In one of these genes a mutation results in the substitution of valine for methionine in the polypeptide (i.e., the normal protein has methionine). What effect would this have on the polypeptide sequence encoded by the other gene? (the sequence of the normal or wild-type gene is shown)

          a) no change
          b) substitution of methionine for arginine
          c) premature termination (shorter protein)
          d) substitution of threonine for isoleucine
          e) substitution of serine for phenylalanine

Measuring Stacking Interactions

The two strands of double- stranded DNA are held together by a number of weak interactions such as hydrogen bonds, stacking interactions, and hydrophobic effects [The Three- Dimensional Structure of DNA].

Of these, the stacking interactions between base pairs are the most significant. The strength of base stacking interactions depends on the bases. It is strongest for stacks of G/C base pairs and weakest for stacks of A/T base pairs and that's why it's easier to melt A/T rich DNA at high temperature. (It is often incorrectly assumed that this is due to having only two hydrogen bonds between A/T base pairs and three between G/C base pairs.)

The figure below shows a melting curve of various DNAs. The curve shows the conversion of double-stranded DNA to denatured single strands by following the change in absorbance as the temperature is increased from left to right. When the double helix is unzipped the absorbance increases. Note that poly(AT) "melts" at a lower temperature (TM = melting temperature) than poly(GC). This is because the average stacking interactions of G/C base pairs are two or three times stronger than A/T base pairs so more thermal energy is need to disrupt them.

The base stacking interactions have been measured in several different ways but most of these measurements are indirect and all of them have been with double-stranded DNA. Of the single-stranded polynucleotides, only polyA has a helical structure in solution and that's because of the stacking interactions between single adenylate resides in the polynucleotide. PolyT is somewhat unstructured and polyG and polyC have complex three-dimensional structures that are difficult to interpret.

Assuming that the stacking interactions of the adenylate residues is the only significant force maintaining the polyA helix, it's possible to measure the stacking interaction directly by pulling both ends to see how much pressure it takes to disrupt the helix. This can be done by fixing single-stranded polyA to a substrate and grabbing the other end with a molecular probe. The elasticity of the DNA can be measured by single-molecule atomic-force spectroscopy (Ke et al. 2007).

As the molecule is stretched, it resists up to the point were the bases become unstacked and the helix is disrupted. The force required can be used to directly calculate the stacking interactions between the adenylate residues. The value turns out to be 3.6 ± 0.2 kcal/mol per base (15 kJ/mol). This is very close to the stacking energies calculated for A/T base pairs in earlier experiments. (The stacking energies for G/C base pairs in DNA are about 61 kJ/mol.)

The experiment is independent, and direct, confirmation of the literature values for stacking interactions. The energies of these stacking interactions turn out to be significantly larger than the energies of the other weak interactions involved in holding double-stranded DNA together (hydrogen bonds, "normal" van der Waals interactions, and hydrophobic interactions).

Changhong Ke, Michael Humeniuk, Hanna S-Gracz, and Piotr E. Marszalek (2007) Direct Measurements of Base Stacking Interactions in DNA by Single-Molecule Atomic-Force Spectroscopy. Phys. Rev. Lett. 99:018302
[The top figure is from Ke et al., 2007]