20 May 2007

This much I know is true

Outside my window the trees are moving. A cold front is bringing winter to the Highveld. Sunny afternoons and cold nights bring many people a sense of melancholy or ennui, but the changing seasons fill my days with whimsy and nostalgia. This might be because I'm moving soon: I feel like I need to take stock of my life, somehow. I've been thinking about my life as an undergrad genetics student during the first part of the 21st century. What fun; how naive I was about science in those first three years. After more than seven years of studying molecular biology, I feel like I've honed my learning, narrowed it down to key skills. I know I did physics and calculus in my first year at university - where did that knowledge go? Bernoulli's principle is a foreign concept again. Is my brain really that selective, choosing to archive only the facts that would prove useful in my future career?

I was almost convinced that this was true, but then decided that it was not the case. Because what I remembered was this: vivid lectures in darkened rooms where professors shared with me the most incredible arcana of our natural world. These facts are not just bubblegum trivia: they are the keys to where we come from, where we are going, and how to get there. They are the truths that achieve what nothing else ever could, and why I chose to become a scientist in the first place: they fill me with a sense of awe. I would like to share some of these secrets with you, secrets discovered through the cumulative efforts of brilliant minds across the ages and continents.

∙ The complex structure of the eye has actually evolved independently in different lineages of organisms at least five times.

∙ The nuclear envelope is confluent with the endoplasmic reticulum and plasmamembrane, so that - in essence - the nucleus is controlling the cell from the outside.

∙ Since HIV enters T-cells by mimicking certain proteins of the immune system, any vaccine that acts by mimicking HIV to stimulate the immune system might actually induce AIDS without the presence of the virus.

∙ The photosynthetic protein ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase is the most abundant enzyme on the planet, making up 15% of the total protein content of chloroplasts.

∙ The 3D spatial arrangement of chromatin inside the cell is of vital importance in gene regulation. This spatial orientation of DNA is severely altered in individuals suffering from epilepsy.

∙ Due to genetic imprinting, the copies of genes responsible for the growth of the placenta are activated only on chromosomes inherited from the father. This makes its growth more aggressive, as maternal genes wouldn't want to jeopardize her capacity for future conceptions.

∙ Certain people have a 32 base pair deletion in the gene for the CCR5 chemokine receptor. This is a known docking site for HIV and people with the deletion are resistant to infection. If we infected everybody everywhere in the whole world with HIV, we could achieve global immunity in one generation. Of course, only a fraction of us would actually survive.

∙ In reality, plants can only produce three kinds of structures: leaves, stems and roots. All other structures including thorns, tubers, flowers and fruit are formed through modification of those three primary structures.

∙ During continued carbon starvation, the body enters a state of ketosis, during which the heart and brain use acetone and related molecules for energy.

∙ The combined weight of all the viral particles floating in the world's oceans right now far surpasses the combined weight of all the whales swimming in it too.

∙ Nicotine is so toxic that the tobacco plant has to store it in special vacuoles. If you grind up the leaves of one tobacco plant and spray the resultant nicotine extract onto another tobacco plant, that plant will die.

∙ Fungi are not plants. Although they are classified into their own kingdom, fungi share many similarities with insects, not just in certain genetic signatures, but also in the ability to synthesize chitin.

∙ Most fertilization events end in spontaneous abortion due to genetic defects in the embryo. Usually the mother never even realizes that she was pregnant.

Disclaimer: it is plain to see that I have not referenced anything in this post. Please do not cite it as a primary source of information. Always go back to the original published accounts.


twanji said...

Great stuff! You always leave me feeling slightly more edu-ma-cated. :)

It's amazing how it all comes back though. I had to pick up a calculator for the first time since Matric, for a stats course I am doing. It's like riding a bike - it all comes back.

Any anxiety setting in yet?

arcadia said...

wow. how are you feeling about leaving?

Unknown said...

Some anxiety, some nostalgia, lots of excitement. But truthfully, I'm too focused on the bureaucracy of getting there and settling in to know how I really feel about the whole thing.

Wendy said...

Have I ever called you an anorak? Or did you call yourself that and I just agreed???

I met a cute guy from Colorado. He told me all about your university (it was his) and your new home town. You are going to have a blast! No need to stress! I will fill you in when I see you.