Posted by: Dan | October 15, 2009

Learning by Experience

Sometimes, the pressures of getting data just tired a person out in science.

pronuc1800Not to mention the difficulties in learning new techniques quickly. Lately, I’ve been learning how to do RNA microinjections into 4-cell stage frog embryos. Simple, by the standards of your average embryologist, but my experience in embryology (or developmental biology, if you prefer) is limited – I was trained as a cell biologist. And learning experiences tend to involve me saying “I had better not do that again!” In other words, in the lab, I tend to learn by a winnowing process, until finally I’ve weeded out all the wrong ways to perform a technique. It’s not very efficient, but for cutting-edge protocols, one has to write the protocol themselves much of the time. The ancient Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight,” comes to mind.

But I have successfully sub-cloned the most interesting of my mutant cDNAs into the in vitro transcription vector that the Skourides lab has, and prepared/aliquoted RNA from these mutants for micro-injections. I hope to move on from learning techniques by experience, to learning about development by observation.

And what do I hope to learn about development? What am I trying to observe?

That’s the kind of questions that my mother-in-law was asking me last night, as she struggles to justify in her mind the generation of deformed embryos, even if they are only frogs bred for laboratory research. And yes, some of the RNA injections, with point mutations at critical residues in an important protein for cell adhesion, will completely block certain morphogenetic movements but allow others, creating deformities that I can study. Studying the defects caused by these mutants, by various biochemical and imaging methods, will tell us what specific functions each part of this vital protein performs in development and what other proteins it must interact with to perform those functions. And in the big picture, it tells us things about how development works and how it may go awry, in ways that no other methods of scientific inquiry can offer.

Basically, it amounts to tinkering around with the genes and proteins that make morphogenesis go. This much lay-persons can grasp without much explanation. But even with the above explanation, it is common for people to cringe – “But you’re messing around with the Miracle Of LifeTM!” Simply put, they view the developing embryo – even at early stages when the embryo is unrecognizable as an animal – as sacred. And I can understand this… life is indeed an awesome phenomenon to contemplate. But to translate that reverence for development into opposing the advancement of knowledge into how it works makes no sense to me (not that my mother-in-law took her concerns this far, but some people do).

This is the modern age, the age of reason, the scientific era, afterall… where we honor those things which we revere by learning about them. And studying embryology often means inducing and then observing the “Don’t do that again!” moments of development.



  1. It’s almost if some think that DNA is a sacred object, isn’t it? When I read the blogs of GMO researchers, they tend to get the same reaction from people. “Don’t Frankenstein my rice, even if it can be made drought or fungus-resistant!”

    Greenpeace has been especially egregious on that particular issue.

    If I were still religious, I would be thankful that people have the ability and the curiosity to figure out how Creation works, but some just kind of like things the way they are. “It is, Sir, as God made it.”


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