Tag Archives: cold spring harbor

Having His Medal and Selling It Too

Just when we thought that the Jim Watson Nobel medal story couldn’t get any weirder, the anonymous bidder who won the medal last week is returning it.

med medal intro Having His Medal and Selling It TooThe medal-winner revealed himself to be Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia. He is paying the total $4.68 million but insists Watson keep the medal. His gesture appears to be one of generosity—but is it really?

“In my opinion,” Usmanov said, “a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognising his achievements is unacceptable.” He added, “James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him.” In short, Usmanov used the auction as a means of making a more than $4M donation to scientific research.

As I wrote the other day, it’s not true that Watson had to sell his medal—he’s hardly eating cat food. Usmanov’s stipulation that the money go to research tacitly acknowledges this fact. Triangulating—or rather, heptangulating—on Watson’s numerous statements about what he would to do with the money, he probably intended to keep a chunk of it, but give most of it away. Although he mused about giving to each of the schools that were primary to his education, experience suggests that most will to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (always his favorite charity). We—or anyway I—will be watching for an announcement in the near future about the endowment of a new Cold Spring Harbor fellowship, probably for young scientists.

So much for the Hockney, though.

But there remains the question of whether Usmanov is doing Watson a favor by returning the medal. Usmanov has upstaged Watson, foiling any effort for Watson to rehabilitate his image through major charitable giving. Watson still has the $600k from the sale of the documents, which went to a different bidder, but that is a small fraction of what his total gift could have been.

Is Usmanov’s gesture a well-intentioned blunder or is it philanthropic one-upsmanship? By returning the medal, Usmanov is simultaneously contributing to scientific research and throttling Watson’s effort to do the same.

If, on the other hand, Watson’s only intention was to raise money for the Lab, then he gets to have his medal and sell it too. I think we can dispense with the prospect of his turning around and selling it again—that seems too cheeky even for Watson. But who knows? Every time he goes out for a long one, he seems to do a double reverse.

The one safe conclusion is that deterministic explanations rarely fit Watson’s actions. A single motivation almost never fully accounts for what he says. Darwin knows, Watson says much that deserves criticism. But anyone who takes his remarks at face value misunderestimates him, is more interested in self-congratulatory castigation than genuine understanding, or some combination of the two.

Scientists find gene for love of the sea

What did Thor Heyerdahl, Captain Ahab, and Odysseus have in common? They all may have shared a common variant of a gene for love of the sea.

Researchers at Mystic University in Connecticut have identified a gene associated with seafaringness, according to an article to be published tomorrow in the journal Genetic Determinism Today. Patterns of inheritance of the long-sought gene offers hope for “sailing widows,” and could help explain why the sailing life has tended to run in families and why certain towns and geographical regions tend historically to have disproportionate numbers of sea-going citizens.

The gene is a form of the MAOA-L gene, previously associated with high-risk behavior and thrill-seeking; another form of the gene, found last year, made news as the “warrior gene.” The current variant, dubbed 4C, was found by a genome-wide association study (GWAS) on 290 individuals from Mystic, CT, New Bedford, MA, and Cold Spring Harbor, NY—all traditional nineteenth-century whaling villages. Residents showed the presence of the 4C variant at a frequency more than 20 times above background in neighboring landlocked towns.

C. M. Ishmael, the lead researcher on the study, said the findings could be a boon to medicine. Although the International Whaling Commission outlawed commercial whaling in 1986, the research could benefit literally hundreds of “sailing widows” left alone for Wednesday-evening sailboat races up and down the East Coast. Each year, an average of 11 salt-stained Polo shirts wash up on the New England and Mid-Atlantic coasts, the only remains of lantern-jawed investment bankers and their half-million-dollar boats. Ishmael said he is trying to have the irrational urge to sail entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, standard reference for psychiatric diseases, in the next, fifth, edition.

“This receptor is an exciting potential target for new drug therapies,” Ishmael said in a phone interview. “We hope lots of companies will be interested in it. And venture capital, too.” Ishmael is himself CEO of a company, MysticGene, formed to develop such therapies. When asked about potential conflict of interest, he replied cryptically, “Well, duh.” Shares of MysticGene closed higher on Monday following the announcement.

The gene for seafaringness has long been an object of study for human geneticists. The trait was first described in 1919 by Charles Davenport, director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who named it “thalassophilia.” Using pedigree analysis and anecdotal correlation, Davenport identified thalassophilia as a sex-linked recessive gene and distinguished it clinically from wanderlust, or love of adventure. Although one might think naively that people living in towns with good harbors would tend to go to sea, Davenport suggested the reverse: those with the thalassophilia trait have tended to migrate toward regions with good harbors and found settlements there. The current study does nothing to refute Davenport’s analysis.

Further, a tentative expansion of the GWAS analysis to various racial groups largely confirms Davenport’s observations that thalassophilia is more prevalent in Scandinavians and the English, and less common in people of German ancestry.

Thalassophilia joins a rapidly growing list of complex behavioral traits that have been shown to have a genetic basis, thanks to GWAS. Besides the warrior gene, recent studies have found genetic links to promiscuity, aggressive behavior, especially while drinking, religiosity, and bipolar disorder, or manic depression—all traits that Davenport and other early human geneticists were deeply interested in. The difference is that modern science better understands the mechanisms involved.

“Seamen know very well that their cravings for the sea are racial,” Davenport wrote in 1919. “’It is in the blood,’ they say.” Today we know it’s not in the blood—it’s in the genes.

The true bits:

Garland E. Allen, “Is a New Eugenics Afoot?,” Science 294, no. 5540 (October 5, 2001): 59 -61. (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/294/5540/59.short)

Charles Benedict Davenport and Mary Theresa Scudder, Naval officers: their heredity and development (Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1919),http://books.google.com/books?id=EWESAAAAYAAJ&dq=naval%20officers%3A%20their%20heredity%20and%20development&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Richard Alleyne, “A gene that could explain why the red mist descends,” Telegraph.co.uk,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8219521/A-gene-that-could-explain-why-the-red-mist-descends.html.

Jeremy Taylor, “Violent-drunk gene discovered,”http://www.asylum.com/2010/12/23/bad-drunk-gene-discovered/.

Justin R. Garcia et al., “Associations between Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene Variation with Both Infidelity and Sexual Promiscuity,” ed. Jan Lauwereyns, PLoS ONE 5, no. 11 (11, 2010): e14162.

C. Frydman et al., “MAOA-L carriers are better at making optimal financial decisions under risk,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (12, 2010),http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19830-people-with-warrior-gene-better-at-risky-decisions.html.