Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sarah Palin vs The Fruit Fly... I'm Cheering For The Fruit Fly

After reading the following quote by Sarah Palin and watching the clip from a speech given in Pittsburgh last Friday...

Two words came to my mind:
(In the voice of a character called Gomer Pyle from an old B/W TV show.)

"Well, Gawwwwlllyy!"


Ignorance isn't bliss...

Unless you are ignorant...

But, for the rest of us...

The (thankfully) well-read, educated, independently-thinking people...

To observe the ill-informed actions of and the impasssioned words of the ignorant is...

In two words:

Utterly Excruciating!

Here is Sarah Palin...
(In her choreographed "good 'ol girl" delivery)

attacking the funding of fruit fly research... this time done in the evil empire of Paris, France...

even though the very same sort of fruit fly research which she claims in her speech, with incredulity, makes no sense and doesn't serve 'the public good'...

has only greatly increased the medical community's understanding of the routes from gene to disease...

and which places the little critter on the same page as the more familiar mouse as one of the premier "model organisms for the field of genetics".

In the same speech, Palin - whose youngest son has special needs - says that "early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference".

Yes... But, even better than early identification or detection...

How about Prevention? or, dare we hope... Cure?

And... How might we accomplish this tremendously beneficial advance for the public good?

Enter the lowly, maligned, ridiculed fruit fly...

In one study - "... published just one day before Palin's speech— about the genetic cues that steer nerve fibres around during the growth of the fruit fly" — the results suggest that the paper will "have implications for the pathogenesis of Down's syndrome"."

"I kid you not."



Palin and the Fruit Fly:
How the Vice-Presidential Candidate Became a Laughing-Stock Among Scientists"

Adam Rutherford
Monday October 27 2008 21.00 GMT

"Although science hasn't featured prominently in the US election, Sarah Palin may have alienated herself from the entire basic research community. In her first policy speech last Friday, she called for the federal government to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and focused on alerting people to the misspent money of Congress. Here's what she said:

"You've heard about some of these pet projects, they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not."

It's difficult to know where to start with this breathtakingly stupid comment. It is possible that she is referring to a specific research project about fruit flies that are a pestilence on olive trees, but bear in mind her folksy smug delivery, which says to me: "Look how ridiculous basic research is." Richard Wolffe, the senior White House correspondent for Newsweek, commented on this, with a generous prefix:

"I'm going to be as restrained and measured as I possibly can about this. But this is the most mindless, ignorant, uninformed comment that we have seen from Governor Palin so far, and there's been a lot of competition for that prize."

I concur. It is genuinely impossible to comprehend the importance of the humble black-bellied sugar lover to humankind. With only four chromosomes but having a version of something like 75% of disease-causing human genes, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster is arguably on a par with the mouse as the founding model organism for the field of genetics.

Why do we study this particular irritating fly for humankind's benefit? Well, because we can. Many of the pathways from gene to disease in humans can be easily reproduced in flies, or are similar enough to be incredibly useful models for understanding how diseases evolve. That's how we learn to treat them. Practically, the fruit fly has a lifespan of around four weeks, meaning that we can examine and generate thousands of specimens in a research heartbeat. We can and do experiment on humans, but with great practical difficulty, even in the rare occasions when ethical concerns permit such experiments.

Here's a couple of examples. Palin said in the same speech that "early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference". Very true. Autism is an enormously complex spectrum of disorders that we are only just beginning to understand. A team of fruit fly researchers from the University of North Carolina last year showed that a protein called neurexin is a key component in making synapses — the connections between brain cells. They issued a response to Palin's idiotic statement, saying:

"The discovery, made in Drosophila fruit flies, may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism."

So, we don't know what neurexin does in people with autism, but we do know that they are connected genetically. And, thanks to the fly, we now know how neurexin works.

One might have thought that Sarah Palin would take a more active interest in one aspect of scientific research. Palin's youngest son has Down's syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21. Although a geneticist by training, I am certainly no expert on the pathogenesis of this condition, nor the significance of Drosophila research into Down's syndrome. So, I typed "drosophila trisomy 21" into PubMed, the scholarly biomedical equivalent of Google. There were 109 results, the most recent published just the day before Palin's gaffe. The concluding sentence of that study — about the genetic cues that steer nerve fibres around during the growth of the fruit fly — suggests that the paper will "have implications for the pathogenesis of Down's syndrome".

These two are drops in the ocean of fruit fly research that have clinical relevance. Down's syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, autism, diabetes, ageing research, cancers of all types: that's a minuscule range of diseases that have been and continue to be utterly dependent on the fruit fly. Eight seconds' worth of Googling would have revealed that to Palin. Maybe it's not obvious to the general public how basic research translates into clinically relevant knowledge. But so much of the information we have about the workings of genes and proteins and therefore diseases comes from studying these little critters.

Sarah Palin's comments display an attitude that is blatantly anti-science. Worse, it's lazy, ignorant and gleefully so. Somewhere along the line, the Republicans have endorsed a candidate who is so short-sighted and glib that she inadvertently mocks an indescribably important field of which she might have a personal knowledge. Whatever happens on November 4, the fruit fly's contribution to the public good will always far outweigh that of Sarah Palin, and she would do well to show some respect. I kid you not."


And from Christopher Hitchens - A great piece on the subject of Sarah at
"This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just "people of faith" but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity."

(From: Palin's War on Science:
The GOP ticket's appalling contempt for knowledge and learning.

Posted Monday, Oct. 27, 2008)


  1. And Obama claimed there were 57 states and got into toney universities because of affirmative action and had a minister/mentor for 20 years that publically claimed white scientists created AIDS to kill black folk and ran against Alan Keyes for the senate............Chris Hitchens was a neo-con Rambo bloodlusting for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan ,but now he tucks tail as the breeze blows the other way and bitches about Palin to sucker-up to the leftwing junta that's a coming....oh and because he's a
    sore atheist[read his rants about Mother Theresa] and can't stand religious folk.


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