Brains That Glow - Poem by gershon hepner
BRAINS THAT GLOW
Brains can glow like jellyfish
when tagged with proteins, and produce
kaleidoscopes when on a dish
or slide, have colors that seduce
the scientists by whom they’re labeled,
but brains that are by love highlighted
cause people to become disabled
when, by desire they’re excited
by their emotions none can spy
when magnified, no microscope
detects, though they electrify
the world like a kaleidoscope.
By love disabled, every brain
starts glowing with a loving color,
and lovelessness drives us insane
because it makes us dreary, duller
than pigments that cause such delight
to scientists who study cells
of brains, as well as bards who write
about love taggers, beaux and belles.
Those who search for such grafitti
artists do not need a jelly
fish to signal their entreaty
for fire in a lover’s belly.
Inspired by an article by Kenneth Chang, who reports that the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded today to Osamu Shimomura,80, an emeritus professor at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and Boston University Medical School; Martin Chalfie,61, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University; and Roger Y. Tsien,56, a professor of pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego:
Biologists have long observed that some sea creatures glow in the dark. In 1962, Dr. Shimomura and Frank Johnson of Princeton isolated a specific glowing protein in the Aequorea victoria, a jellyfish that drifts in the ocean currents off the west coast of North America. The protein looked greenish under sunlight, yellowish under a light bulb and fluorescent green under ultraviolet light. Dr. Shimomura and Dr. Johnson called it the green protein, but now it is known as green fluorescent protein, or G.F.P. for short. The green fluorescent protein consists of a chain of 238 amino acids bent into a beer can-like cylindrical shape, and for two and a half decades it remained a little-known biological curiosity. Dr. Chalfie first heard about the protein at a 1988 seminar and thought he might be able to use it in his studies of Caenorhabditis elegans, a transparent roundworm. “It didn’t take much to realize that if I put that fluorescent protein inside this transparent animal, I would be able to see the cells that were making it, ” he said. “And that’s what we set out to do.” He thought that the fluorescent protein could be made to serve as a biological marker by splicing the gene that makes the protein into an organism’s DNA next to a gene switch or another gene. “That serves as a lantern, ” Dr. Chalfie said, and biologists would be able to see when specific genes turn on or off and where different proteins are produced. He was not able to pursue the idea until Douglas Prasher, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, found the G.F.P. gene and shared it with Dr. Chalfie in 1992. Dr. Chalfie said that within a month his group was able to inser the gene into E. coli bacteria. In 1994, Dr. Chalfie and his collaborators reported that they had inserted the protein into six cells of the C. elegans worm. When placed under ultraviolet light, those cells shined green, revealing their location. For many biologists, it was a surprise that inserting the G.F.P. gene was all that needed; many had thought that other jellyfish proteins would be needed to help G.F.P. fold into its light-emitting shape. Dr. Tsien was thinking along similar lines as Dr. Chalfie, also contacting Dr. Prasher. But for the biology experiment he wanted to conduct, he needed two colors of fluorescent proteins. Dr. Tsien started mutating the G.F.P gene and looking at the resulting proteins. Some, he found, glowed blue instead of green. “That was the first evidence you could change the color, ” Dr. Tsien said. Other scientists have since expanded the palette further, enlisting similar proteins from corals to produce fluorescent reds. The multiple colors allow biologists to simultaneously track different processes. In one experiment, the brain of a mouse was transformed into a kaleidoscope of color by tagging different nerve cells with different fluorescent proteins.The protein has even entered the world of art. In 2000, Eduardo Kac, an artist, displayed a green glowing rabbit named Alba, which he had commissioned a French laboratory to modify genetically with the G.F.P gene. Scientists have also made green-glowing pigs and zebra fish, which they hope will aid research on stem cells and cancer.
© 2008 Gershon Hepner 10/8/08
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