In memoriam: Frederick Sanger

250px-Frederick_Sanger2Frederick Sanger, the only Briton to have won two Nobel prizes, has died. He worked in biochemistry, studying DNA and proteins. His first Nobel prize was awarded for being the first to sequence a protein, insulin. At the time, it required years of work to do so.  He found that it was made up of two peptide chains: all proteins are one or more peptide chains. He spent nearly ten years removing one amino acid at a time from the end of the protein and identifying it, then going on to the next.

Winning the prize enabled him to afford better facilities and gather bright students around him. His second prize was for an ingenious and efficient way of discovering the sequence of nucleotide bases in a molecule of DNA or RNA. The linking of base pairs gives the molecule its ladder structure. The Sanger method cuts the molecules at different places, sorts them by weight (and therefore length) and identifies the base on the end using fluorescent dyes of different colours. According to Wikipedia, he used the method sequence human mitochondrial DNA (16,569 base pairs) and bacteriophage λ (48,502 base pairs). His method was used to sequence the human genome and many others.

His work allowed us to understand the genetic basis of mutations and diseases and was important for the development of better vaccines. Frederick Sanger was also honoured with the Order of Merit for distinguished service in science as well as several other awards.

The Telegraph has quite a nice obituary: Frederick Sanger.

Feminism 101

Here is a good new resource about feminist issues in the high-tech field: Finally, a Feminism 101 blog.

Breakthrough in cancer tests

Jack Andraka (BBC image)


Jack Andraka, a high school student in Maryland has invented a new test for cancer of the liver, breast, or pancreas while they are still in early stage. It’s a blood test that takes seconds. It takes 1/168 of the time, is 400 times more sensitives, and it costs 1/26,000 as much. It costs 3¢ and takes five minutes.

The test uses single-walled carbon nanotubes to detect mesothelin, a protein that is overproduced by certain cancers, including mesothelioma and ovarian and pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Jack sent 200 e-mails about his proposed experimental procedure and collected 199 rejections. He found one lab where he test his idea.

Jack credits the Internet for online journals–he was reading in biology class about nanotubes as biosensors–and search engines that let him learn enough to do this.

Food safety: The struggle to pasteurize milk

Pop quiz: The scientist who discovered that pasteurizing milk prevented it from transmitting diseases was told that if it were important, someone else would have discovered it already. What sex was the scientist?

Alice Catherine Evans proved that unpasteurized milk spread disease, and improved the health of any nation that was listening.

It was an exceptionally stubborn microbiologist named Alice Catherine Evans who was the first scientist in the United States to definitively show that microbes in unpasteurized milk can sicken humans as well as animals. She went on to fight for the heat-treating of milk to protect the public and stands today as the mother of pasteurization in the United States. And the male heroes embodied in De Kruif’s book were hardly supportive. She was mocked, belittled and assured that if she was right, “someone much more outstanding” would have made the discovery long before.

De Kruif included her [in Men against Death] to both acknowledge her contribution and protest her treatment. “Such,” he noted sadly, “is the silliness of scientists.”

Still, by the time his book was published, Evans had won her battle to such an extent that she had already been elected president of the Society of American Bacteriologists—a forerunner of the Society of Microbiologists—in 1928. And she had done that with significant support from male colleagues, willing to “honor one woman whose findings dramatically advanced their field of research and improved public health in this country,” wrote Maryland biologist and former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell in a much later tribute of her own.

Alan Turing was likely not a suicide

On the occasion of Turing’s would-have-been-100th birthday, researchers don’t think that he committed suicide. Rather, they believe that his death occurred when an electroplating experiment went wrong or chemicals were accidentally transferred to his food.

Turing expert Prof Jack Copeland… believes the evidence would not today be accepted as sufficient to establish a suicide verdict. …a coroner these days would demand evidence of pre-meditation before announcing a verdict of suicide, yet nothing in the accounts of Turing’s last days suggest he was in anything but a cheerful mood.

Turing was a mathematical genius and codebreaker who contributed to Britain’s success in World War II.

Greta Christina at the Reason Rally

Greta Christina is one of the clearest, most passionate, and most compassionate speakers for atheism today. Here is her talk at the Reason Rally, with the theme of “Why are Atheists Angry?”

Neil DeGrasse Tyson puts Bill O’Reilly in his place

This is the source of a beautiful quote that I’ve seen going around the Web. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains what should be obvious, that science explains a lot of things that we thought were divine and we do know what causes tides.

Ernst Haeckel and radiolarians

I’m going through old books at home, currently a stack of “Horizon,” a hard-backed quarterly from the American Heritage Publishing Company. (The contributors range from Arnold Toynbee to T.S. Eliot. I’m reluctant to send them to the Goodwill.) The Spring 1976 issue contains “The Stately Mansions of the Radiolaria,” by Stephen Jay Gould.

Here’s what he says about the much-maligned Ernst Haeckel:

Ernst Haeckel was the Thomas Huxley of Germany. A brilliant and indefatigable writer and lecturer, he became the continent’s chief publicist for evolution. His books certainly had a greater impact on the general public than those of Darwin. He is best remembered today for his intriguing, but basically incorrect theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—that is, that individuals repeat the stages of their evolutionary ancestry during embryonic growth….

Haeckel also introduced a multitude of terms into our biological language—”plankton” among them. in his own day, he was a force to reckon with. He railed against the established church and the privileges of aristocracy, and hoped to establish an evolutionary humanism as the basis of ethical judgment. But when he was not fighting his cosmic and romantic battles, he liked to work on the taxonomy of radiolarians, for he was overwhelmed by the beauty and variety of their shells. He wrote an illustrated an enormous monograph to describe the radiolarians collected by a famous scientific expedition, the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger in 1872–1876.

In his monograph of 1877, Haeckel could do little more than catalogue in wonder. He estimated the number of known radiolarian species at 4,314, of which he described 3,508 for the first time [my emphasis] in that single work. Haeckel’s plates are a marvel of natural illustration, though in retrospect they contain as much imagination as observation. Haeckel was so convinced of the unerring geometric regularity of radiolarian parts that he drew many perfect symmetries not quite obtained by the real beasts.

This is a man who should not be dismissed in a single sentence about embryos if there’s space for more.

P.S. I made this comment over on the Pharyngula Endless Thread and decided to preserve it here.

P.P.S. Radiolarian plates.

Part of Plate 15 in Radiolarians

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