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……. Inspirations October 13, 2006

Posted by sumesh in Biology, Chemistry, Culture, Nobel Prize, Philosophy of Science, Physiology or Medicine, Uncategorized.
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Besides inspiring those who take science seriously and pursue it dangerously  icon_rolleyes.gif   this year’s Nobel Prizes, at a minimum,  inspire many a coffee-table discussion on the business of science, its growth, serious research and the very idea of giving a prize.  Coffee-table discussions in the sophisticated time of Web2.0 techies, we must not undermine, are moving to blogophere and becoming etable discussions.

To begin with, consider Nobel Prize 2006 for Chemistry.  Dr. Kornberg is a structural biologist by vocation but the prize he won is a prize for chemistry and a surprise for many in chemistry.  Of all things, his discoveries are concerned with the transcription processes in cell.  As we have seen in the last blog his work tells a story of the information transfer from the prince DNA to the princess mRNA and the final protein production in the fortress of cell.

Isn’t it a story in pure biology?  By the measures of school bio, college bio, and advanced bio, it is so grumble chemists.  The only chemical tool he utilised in telling it was crystallography, which he used with uncanny originality to take the actual crystal structure pictures of an enzyme called RNA polymerase II in action- a lallapaloosa kind of great result however. 

Does this award hints at the increasing interdisciplinary nature of higher studies or the periferal biology eating into the more basic science of chemistry or the radical changes taking place in chemistry, biology and other sciences blurring all the distinctive nature of each one of them? (see the News piece “Nobel Prize blurs boundaries” by Katharine Sanderson in Nature 443, 615(12 October 2006).  One can have any of these options and it it too.   

But if we take into account the fact that most of the Nobel Prizes awarded in the last decade were like this years Prize for chemistry, one can safely predict that this trend is here to stay.  Further, the encroaching on the more basic sciences (like physics and chemistry) by the less basic sciences will increase as more and more scholars concentrate on basic research, on the complex issues of fundamental mechanisms of world and life.  However, this will neither blur the boundaries of the disciplines altogether nor reduce one discipline into another.  The complex nature of the issues and findings may unify the disciplines.  One major business of science when it grows is unification of its different branches earlier classified as per the needs of Aristotle & Co. Unification, needless to say, is the sure symbol of matured sciences and ‘the secure path’ to the increasing queerness in sciences.

As for the growth of science, let me just say that it does not work the way as Popper thought it or as Kuhn conceived of it.  One counter example did never come to outplace a theory living and kicking.  (This is a large topic, a topic for many blogs.  So search me taking this up in some near-future blogs.  That means I must move on to the next sub topic of this blog).

The next subtopic is serious research.  ‘What is it?’ you may ask.  When does it start? See the following link for a start. Well, just for a start.


The above link tells a story of research. 

The pursuit of research, it seems, starts when one finds interest in some problem which often happens at undergraduate period (or earlier) when people are at their creative and innovative best.  Generally, the problem for research is formulated at this level as the student works under a master of the field and master the ways of doing research, uninstructed.  

Those who are genuinely interested in basic research will not find it difficult to see the gravity of the problem as they struggle to get a handle on it, or as they tirelessly try or dare to imagine every possible options to tackle the problem at hand.  Some of them get the result at a very young age as many of the great physicist had, on the other hand, some of them take a life’s time to address the issue to their satisfaction. 

 [Isn’t it the case that undergraduates outperform graduates and postgraduates in basic-research-level-tests?  This is no denying the fact that some graduates or postgraduates are great performers.  We are taking the case, here,  in general. 

The difference between undergraduates and others is very evident, especially evident in technological institutes.  The reason for this difference is hard to pinpoint. However, there are some sign posts. 

The competition in undergraduate level courses even in ordinary institutes (again, for technological courses it is very evident) is very high.  Where as competition, if any, in higher level courses is abysmally low.  Most of the applicants take up higher level course as an afterthought, after realising that as other cherished options are not available, continuing education is the best option.  Research, as one friend on mine puts it, ‘is the last resort of the vanquished’. 

It is indeed a great thing (great politically and democratically) that educational set up works as a resort, but greater emphasize on original and innovative work is needed  and newer strategies for getting the best minds must be adopted to yeild interesting findings from research work.  As this year’s Noble Prizes in sciences point basic research is important in its own right.

When and why do we give a prize to someone.  Of course, we give a prize to someone if only there is a prize to give to.  To mention, if there is no Nobel Prize for biology as the case is, one can’t give a prize for biology, unless one introduce it anew.  So if there is a discovery in biology (Nobel prize is not awarded for biology; it is awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and 1968 onwards, for economics) that is more important than the discoveries in chemistry, then awarding Nobel Prize 2006 for Chemistry for a biologist is not fully unjustifiable.  The reason being the second-best-choice. 

Another point is that giving a prize is not just an act of giving something away, or an act that culminates in giving something once and for all.  More often than not, it is an attempt at harnessing the future not just that of the recipient but of the larger world also.  It is an act that takes something from the recipient in the immediate future……..[to be continued]

This year’s Nobel Prizes in sciences are  pointers in this direction. 

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2006

Biologists Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello won this year’s Nobel Prize for their work on the silence of the genes as the citation has it- for their discovery of “RNA interference – gene silencing by double-stranded RNA.

RNA interference-RNAi for short- is a gene silencing mechanism animals and plants use for controlling genetic information.  It works both as a tool to regulate gene expression and as a natural defence mechanism of cell against viruses. 

(See the  previous blog for an account of the general structure of a cell)

The information in a gene, if it is to have any use, have to be copied into mRNA molecule which, unlike double-stranded DNA, is single-stranded.

In a fascinating set of experiments Dr. Fire and Dr. Mello found that a matching strand for an mRNA(for it’s single strand) can silence all expression of the related gene that prevent protein synthesis.  The new matching strand binds to the target RNA to create a double-stranded RNA, (like a double-stranded DNA).  That is the new strand interferes with the functioning of the complementary RNA,by locking it, by making it double-stranded.  The resultant double-stranded RNA is destroyed by a set of proteins present in the cell. They found that in this way the gene expression can be silenced and any gene can be inactivated.

This method enables scientists to identify the function of each gene and to explore its pathways.  Thanks to RNAi, it may be possible to silence mutated or damaged genes that result in adverse health conditions.

These findings, along with many other recent experiments on RNA functions, allow us to peer into the detailed workings of cellular machinery.  They show that RNA plays far more important role in the cellular functions.  For instance, mRNA can regulate a specific cellular function all by its own and other types of RNAs such as micro-RNAs can function as gene  regulators.  The increasing realisation of the importance of RNAs in life constructing and sustaining functions of cell takes away much glitz and glamour from the politics of genetic determination.