By Ricardo Martinez.
By DAVID NG
Just told this story at the Pathology Arts Gala last night, and I thought that maybe others would like to hear it. This is based on a piece I wrote for the Believer, and it’s about a time when I was a bit obsessed with my name.
Recorded by The Monti at ScienceOnline 2012, January 20th, 2012.
Ben Cohen and I wrote this one a few years back. The Nude mouse (image from wiki) has always been one of those things that is almost always misunderstood by the general public. Consequently, we decided to write something that could also work as a pinup. Hey, these mice also need some validation – they have feelings too…
(CLICK HERE FOR PIN-UP POSTER – pdf file ~250k)
– We suggest photocopying at 129% – LTR to 11×17 –
Earlier this week, we had the chance to sit down with a member of a growing army of naked bubble mice. In thousands of biology labs around the globe, these lab mice quietly do their part in the pursuit of science and medicine. Called Nude Mice, these striking creatures are a result of spontaneous inbreeding, natural genetic freak shows if you will. More importantly, they are bereft of both hair and immunity – things that would normally protect them from the elements of the sky and the cooties of the world. And lucky for us, traits that not only afford some big advantages in the research arena but make for a great interview. The nude mouse we interviewed was just finished with a talk biopsy, so we met in his lab while he worked through his lunch.
– – –I want to shoot straight from the hip here: On having no hair. How is it?
It can get cold sometimes, but generally it doesn’t bother me. Besides, most females prefer it that way.
Okay, okay. Then I’ll stay on this pattern: On having no immune system. Your thoughts?
Well, I have to say that as bad as it sounds, I love it. I mean – it’s who I am. If anything, the part I hate is having to explain what having no immune system actually means. If you go into B cells, T cells, antibodies and the like, people just glaze over. It can really kill a conversation.
I’m with you on that.
In the past, I’d talk about being like the bubble boy. Nowadays, I usually just say rent the movie Fantastic Voyage – yes, that Fantastic Voyage, with Raquel Welch in the tight suit – and watch out for those bad ass white cells eating the spaceship. I tell them that not having an immune system means stuff like not having any of those bad ass white cells.
Sort of After-School Special-ish, no?
Don’t judge me, ‘kay?
Of course not. How about, Give us your reflections on the media.
You’re asking me?
The media I can live without. We’re fairly private creatures, so the whole publicity thing is not cool. Besides, they almost never get it right. One time, my uncle had a human ear prosthetic grow on his back, and well, Christ, with all the press that ensued, you’d think he was sleeping with Jennifer Anniston. Not only that, but if you picked up a newspaper, you’d see this picture of poor naked Uncle Orv with a huge human ear on his back, and you’d be totally thinking that he could hear out of this thing. Which, of course, is not at all true. A shame really – that experiment was pretty elegant in my view.
You’re kidding me, right?
Not at all. Engraft a hollow polymer scaffold (shaped like an ear) on Uncle Orv’s back, infiltrate it with tissue cells from a burn victim needing an ear prosthetic, and wait for growth. Unky Orv ends up doing good because he has no hair, and he also doesn’t have the biology to reject the foreign ear tissue. How brilliant is that?
Point taken. Let’s move on. On stem cell research. React.
Basically, and to quote a GREAT movie, “bring it on!” Although to be honest, my opinion is pretty biased. They do a lot of bone marrow research on types like me, since having no immune system means I’m great as a clean slate. Just put some stem cells in my spleen and hey, you just might reconstitute my immune system. That’s awesome when it happens, because then I can actually leave my bubble for a while. I hate living in a fucking bubble.
On scientists playing God, creationism and intelligent design.
Seriously, do I look like something that is a result of intelligent design? And I don’t care much for those creationism types either. Did you know that only humans get to enter the gates of heaven? What’s up with that?
I have no problem with that, if you’re asking. But let’s keep this one-way. On the ethical treatment of animals. Everyone’s always bitching about that.
Look, it’s really not so bad. I get nice living quarters, and plenty of food. And every once in a while, they bring in a wheel or a bunch of females, sometimes both. Plus, I know I’m doing some good in this world – the experiments they carry out can actually help people. Really, what more could you ask for?
By DAVID NG
Unicorns are great. Seriously.
And here I’m going to think out loud and think of them in a conventional biology sort of way. You know – have a little fun evolution wise.
In many respects (except for the magical powers bit) I don’t think this is necessarily too hard to do. i.e. you have something that looks like a horse, but hey what’s this – there’s also a horn there.
I guess the question I’m pondering is whether a unicorn could occur from a realistic evolutionary biology point of view – you know, given the right circumstances and the right timescale. And if so, exactly what sort of things, biologically and genetically, would need to happen?
Anyway, here’s a couple options to sift through.
One possible way to get the whole horn thing started on a poor horse is through a condition known as “cutaneous horn” formation. In this situation, you essentially have an abnormal, sometimes cancerous growth, that results in a keratin structure protruding from the skin.
(Here’s a picture of a cutaneous horn – it’s kind of ugly)
“Cutaneous horns usually arise on sun-exposed skin but can occur even in sun-protected areas. The hyperkeratosis that results in horn formation develops over the surface of a hyperproliferative lesion. Most often, this is a benign verruca or seborrheic keratosis; or it could be a premalignant actinic keratosis. A malignancy has been reported at the base of a cutaneous horn in up to 20% of lesions. More than half of all cutaneous horns are benign.Benign lesions associated with cutaneous horns include angiokeratoma, angioma, benign lichenoid keratosis, cutaneous leishmaniasis, dermatofibroma, discoid lupus, infundibular cyst, epidermal nevus, epidermolytic acanthoma, fibroma, granular cell tumor, inverted follicular keratosis, keratotic and micaceous pseudoepitheliomatous balanitis, organoid nevus, prurigo nodularis, pyogenic granuloma, sebaceous adenoma, seborrheic keratosis, trichilemmoma, and verruca vulgaris. Lesions with premalignant or malignant potential that may give rise to cutaneous horns include adenoacanthoma, actinic keratosis, arsenical keratosis, basal cell carcinoma, Bowen’s disease, Kaposi sarcoma, keratoacanthoma, Paget’s disease, renal cell carcinoma, sebaceous carcinoma, solar keratosis, and squamous cell carcinoma.” (From eMedicine)
So you have something producing horn-like features, and whilst not exactly common, is still within the realm of possibility.
However, this possibility of unicorn evolution is kind of weak, because often the base of the “horn” structure is not at all stable, and in fact it looks like these horn structures can often be quite easily removed surgically. As well, this is not really a heritable trait in the usual sense – i.e. normally these structures are formed due to abnormal growth coming from a one cell, possibly mutated from exposure to a some mutagen (the sun is often sited for example). In other words, whilst susceptibility to the abnormal growth is likely genetic, the act of it always occuring on the horses head is less so (or something like that).
In other words, let’s move on.
One thing I can say is that it’s interesting to note that both the horse ((Equus ferus caballus) and the rhino (Rhinocerotidae) both belong to the Perissodactyla order, also often termed the odd-toed ungulates. This suggests that in the grand scheme of things, these two types of creatures are not so far apart. Whilst obviously interbreeding isn’t an option (since the species barrier would presumably be more than sufficient to disallow the formation, as well as the propagation, of hybrids unicorn like rhino-horses), it does present the idea that however the horn formed on the rhino, this could still be in the realm of reality with something like a horse.
Which actually makes all the more sense when you look through a paper published in the Journal of Morphology in 2006, which did CT scanning of rhinoceros’ horns to get a better sense of their anatomy. Here, the suggestion is that the horn of rhinos are markedly different from a horn of, say, a sheep. Specifically:
“The horns of most animals have a bony core covered by a thin sheath of keratin, the same substance as hair and nails. Rhino horns are unique, however, because they are composed entirely of keratin.”
This might fit a little with the “cutaneous horn” angle, but then another observation came about from the CT scans. The lead authors goes on to say that:
“The horns most closely resemble the structure of horses’ hoofs, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills. This might be related to the strength of these materials, although more research is needed in this area.”
And this nugget of information brings up a delicious possibility.
That is – maybe a unicorn could develop initially from a mutation within a hox gene, resulting in a hoof like structure coming out of the animal’s head. And in case, you’re wondering what a hox gene is all about, it’s essentially:
(From wiki) “A group of related genes that specify the anterior-posterior axis and segment identity of metazoan organisms during early embryonic development. These genes are critical for the proper number and placement of embryonic segment structures (such as legs, antennae, and eyes).”
In plain speak, this simply means that the hox family of genes are the grand controllers of body architecture – as in your arms go here, your head here, and this is about right for your big toes. In other words, for our unicorn, we really just need a mutational event where something meant to be coming out at the limbs is inadvertently coming out of the wrong part of the general body plan.
Classic examples of hox mutants occur in fly embryogenesis, and here are two of many examples of mutations that result in something along the lines of a foot/leg like structure coming out of the head area.
This is an image of a fly with a mutated proboscipedia gene: basically the labium develops into a pair of legs (image link)
All to say that I’m wondering if the hox idea might actually have some (pardon the pun) legs to it.
Of course, even so, the hox idea would only be part of the story. Natural selection and the whole epic time scale stuff would still need to do its thing. Here, I must admit that I am curious to see what readers would think are the best environmental conditions (serious and funny ones) to produce the right selecting pressures for unicorn morphology. Maybe a few suggestions in the comments section would be cool?
And what about those magical powers? Well, how about we let the Intelligent Design folks debate over that one…
From Futility Closet.
Deluged with mail after his discovery of the double helix, Francis Crick began sending a printed card in response to invitations:
The “cure your disease” part is priceless.
I wrote this waay back in 2005. Could do with a bit of an update (I’m sure there’s a lot more in the cloning genre now…)
– – –
By DAVID NG
SETTING: A Starbucks in L.A. – three celebrities are sitting at a table with their coffees and sharing a newspaper, a fourth is walking towards the table with his coffee.
(Approaching the table)
Man, I really need this now.
(Sits down, whilst the others nod or wave).
Is there a free section of paper?
You vant the sports section?
(Takes the paper and starts looking at the front page)
(A few minutes of silence as everyone reads their newspaper)
(Slams his paper down and stands up).
Dis ist terrible! As Fuehrer of the German people and Chancellor of the Reich, I cannot agree with dis. Vee must fight. Neither force of arms nor lapse of time vill conquer Germany. It ist infantile to hope for the disintegration of our people. Mr. Bush may be convinced that America vill win. I do not doubt for a single moment that Germany vill be victorious. Destiny vill decide who is right. One thing only ist certain. In the course of world history, there have never been two victors, but very often only losers.
Whoa easy there Adolf. Is that de-caf you’re drinking there buddy?
Hey, look at this, Governor Arnold. Looks like you’re in the paper today.
I know, isn’t it swell? My biceps looked especially good on that day.
(sipping his coffee)
Yeah, pretty cool, pretty cool. I’ve got to ask though, what’s it like being a Governor of California anyway?
Oh, you know, nothing special really. Besides, what makes you so sure that it is me and not my clone.
Hey, I saw Spider Man 2 yesterday – it vas really good. Hey Michael, do dat funny thing I like.
You mean this.
(Grabs Arnold by the shirt lapels and pulls him close to his face)
Ya, that kills me too.
(Darth Vader, the Lord of Sith then approaches the table)
Hello Arnold, may I join you?
(Standing up and cutting in)
I’m sorry Mr Vader, but dis table ist reserved only for celebrities who have been cloned in zee movies.
Your destiny lies with me Schwarzenegger. Obi-Wan knew this to be true.
(Turning to Hitler, with two raised fingers and speaking very deliberately)
I am welcome to join you for coffee.
(In a sort of trance)
You are velcome to join us for coffee.
Here, please have my seat.
Here, please have my seat.
Darth! Stop that now!
(Hitler shakes his head)
The ‘cyborg’ coffee group doesn’t meet until tomorrow morning.
(Turning to Arnold)
Impressive. Most impressive. Obi-Wan has taught you well. You have controlled your fear. Now, release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me.
(Tapping his finger on Darth Vader’s arm)
Umm, buddy, I think Arnold told you to get lost.
(Looking at everyone)
Hmmmpph, very well.
(Turns away and leaves)
* Michael Keaton was in “Multiplicity,” Arnold Schwarzenegger was in “The Sixth Day,” Hitler was in “The Boys of Brazil,” and Pikachu was in “Pokemon, the First Movie: Mew vs MewTwo”
I always thought the Stem Cell Barbie’s slogan would make an interesting t-shirt. Note that this was originally published at Yankee Pot Raost.
By DAVID NG
Concept: Stem-Cell Barbie®
Description: Produce a plastic mesh form in the shape of a Barbie doll. Seed this mesh with embryonic stem cells. Culture in bio-chambers until cells infiltrate and coat the plastic form.
Pro: This Barbie might get pregnant.
Con: This Barbie might get cancer
Potential slogan: “Feels like real skin because it is real skin.”
Concept: Hybrid Barbie®
Description: Barbie doll powered by both conventional gasoline engine, as well as an electric motor.
Pro: Barbie is emissions-compliant.
Con: No one can figure out a good place for the gas nozzle to go in. It always ends up looking dirty.
Potential slogan: “This baby gets up to 40 miles per gallon.”
Concept: Schrödinger’s Barbie®
Description: Interactive Barbie doll placed inside a thick lead box, containing a mock cyanide canister, and mock Geiger counter. The Geiger counter may or may not release one decaying mock atom, which in turn, may or may not break the canister releasing the cyanide. Therefore, child would be uncertain as to the fate of the Barbie doll (who could be pretend-dead or pretend-alive) until the lead box is actually opened.
Pro: This is fun way to illustrate an aspect of quantum law, which suggests that due to the superposition of states, Barbie is both dead and alive until the box is opened.
Potential slogan: “Schrödinger’s Barbie—be the first to give a shit.”
Concept: Super Malleable Barbie®
Description: Produce Barbie dolls using the Dow Corning 3179 dilatant compound (a mixture containing silicone oil and boric acid, commonly known as Silly Putty).
Pro: Barbie can bounce.
Con: When Barbie pretend-falls asleep whilst pretend-reading a newspaper, the newsprint will show up on her face.
Potential slogan: “Ken will thank you.”
Concept: Flame-Retardant Barbie®
Description: Coat existing doll product with copious amounts of the common flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ether.
Pro: Excellent opportunity for accessories (fireworks, matches, flame throwers, etc).
Con: Excellent opportunity for accessories (fireworks, matches, flame throwers, etc).
Potential slogan: “Throw the Barbie on the barbie!”
Concept: Supercomputer Artificial-Intelligence Robot Barbie®
Description: Multiple clusters of high-powered processors networked to a Barbie doll mainframe. 2 USB ports standard. CD/DVD burner drive optional.
Pro: No more stupid brainstorming sessions—send Barbie instead.
Con: Small chance of total world domination and destruction of the human race as we know it.
Potential slogan: “Kicks ass at chess!”
Some more silliness I wrote a few years back. Originally published at McSweeney’s.
By DAVID NG
GRIMACE: What am I?
GENETICIST: That is a very interesting question indeed. And we should begin by briefly discussing your known history. According to your records, you were born as “Evil Grimace,” with four deft arms, and a penchant for amusing yourself by stealing milkshakes from small children. Then, in 1974, you experienced a change of heart, a loss of two arms, and a metamorphosis into what is your current incarnation—a supposedly warm, gentle, and seemingly living representation of the “embodiment of childhood.”
GRIMACE: Is that why I have only one orifice?
GENETICIST: Perhaps so, as childhood is a period marked by the most basic of bodily functions. In truth, it is that kind of interesting nuance that makes me suspect your being a genetically modified organism. Furthermore, the timing of your appearance coincides perfectly with a social phenomenon during the ’70s. A time when discussing human cloning was culturally fashionable, when books like The Boys From Brazil and In His Image appeared on bestseller lists.
Also, you are purple like a giant areola.
GRIMACE: How can I find out more?
GENETICIST: A promising course of action is to try genetic counseling. Which, in the conventional sense, suggests that we investigate your network, both in family and in friendship. This is to help construct a more complete picture of your being and, more importantly, your past. From this, we will have a firm starting point from which to build.
GRIMACE: But I have no family, no real friends, and Ronald, frankly, scares me. What other alternatives do I have?
GENETICIST: Ronald scares us, too, but that is for another interview. Under those restrictive circumstances, one possible alternative is to contact nonacquaintances with similar traits. Perhaps someone like Barney the Dinosaur, who is also big, purple, and waves a lot like an idiot. Similarly, we could simply forge ahead and arrange for a genetic test. This is a process that will allow us to peer at your very own genetic code, and is something that will surely resolve the mystery that surrounds you.
GRIMACE: Like why I am so popular with the ladies?
GENETICIST: Yes, exactly! In some respects, you could be the perfect metaphor for what is both wonderfully right and terribly wrong about genetic manipulation. Due to the marvels of this technology, you appear to have luxury, wealth, fame, as many women as you desire, and yet you have no identity, no origin. If ever there were such a thing, you are an organic black box.
GRIMACE: I think it’s because the ladies like my massive tongue.
GENETICIST: Which is magnificent indeed! In fact, seeing it now, I am struck by how similar your appearance is to that of a tongue, a taste bud, to be specific. To entertain this avenue, I ask that you take a moment to study and answer these five carefully designed questions:
(1) Do you find that you sweat profusely such that you are always, to a certain degree, moist?
(2) Do you find yourself a constant victim of paper cuts, specifically when handling your letters of correspondence?
(3) Do you find you enjoy bathing in scented waters but are repelled by thoughts of swimming in the sea, perhaps fearing that the salt will further constrict your already-tender skin?
(4) Do you notice that when you are jumping on a trampoline, the consonant sounds “l,” “n,” “d,” and “t” appear as if by magic?
And (5) Do you, during the winter season, always find yourself inexplicably and inconveniently stuck to cold metal structures?
GRIMACE: Hmmm, maybe the trampoline one, but otherwise, no.
GENETICIST: Ah, well, it was only a hypothesis. It appears that we will order that genetic test after all. But first, I feel compelled to present this stern warning: these tests can be excruciatingly accurate sometimes. You may, quite frankly, be disappointed with the result. You see, I cannot control the outcome of the test. I do not possess that power. I am not God. I am, sadly, only a geneticist.
Specifically, this one:
Which, of course, is a cover of Kid A from the CD Kid A. Thom Yorke, years ago, reportedly left the following message on a radiohead message board:
POSTED BY Thom ON JULY 30, 2000 AT 23:39:21:
IN REPLY TO: Thom, why Kid A?
dedicated to the first human clone.
i bet it has already happened.
I always knew that my becoming a geneticist was a good career move… MUST use this image for a slide when talking about genetic testing, or maybe even personal genomics.
Via Hey Oscar Wilde.