More wacky science á la Coburn

"It's elementary, my dear Crick"Senator Tom Coburn has been attacking what he considers spurious science funded by the National Science Foundation. In a scathing recent report, he skewered grants that supported a robot that folds laundry (an activity recently proven to lead to Nobel Prizes) and taught shrimp how to run on a treadmill. Coburn, who holds a BS in accounting, an MD, and a PhD in BS, knows his science. He told ABC News, “What it says to me is, they have too much money if they’re going to spend money on things like that.”

What else “like that” has grant money been spent on over the years? Funny you should ask. We here at genotopia have compiled, as a public service, a list of insanely useless research that, as it turned out, led to Nobel Prizes. See if you can identify them. Get one point each for correctly identifying the scientist, year of their Nobel, and the scientific topic. Play along and win! Post your score in the comments section to be sure you can claim your prize!


1-6: Consider yourself an honorary Republican Senator.
7-14: You will receive a copy of Coburn’s memoir, My story and I’m sticking to it, forthcoming from Anal Richards University Press.
15-20: You will be entered in a drawing for a coveted slot as chair of an NIH study section!
21-24: Congratulations! You’ve just been elected Secretary of Labor!

a) For decades, the Carnegie Institution of Washington gave money to an eccentric, prickly loner who eventually stopped publishing altogether, and whose main contribution, if you can call it that, was a study of colored spots in corn!

b) In the early 1950s, the March of Dimes funded a bright but aimless postdoc and a superannuated and feckless British graduate student working in England, paying them to diddle around with Tinker Toys!

c) In the late 1950s, the Jane Coffin Childs Fund supported research on sex in bacteria! This same researcher went on to study life on Mars—the only science which has no subject matter!

d) Countless thousands in federal funding went to a foreign researcher who studied what happens when you poke a sea slug!

e) For more than 40 years, this Caltech scientist was supported in his research into how to create mutant fruit flies!

f) This kooky researcher was supported in what he called the “wonderful experience” of studying brown fat in Syrian golden hamsters! He later proposed the wacky hypothesis of an infectious disease that isn’t caused by any organism!

g) This so-called scientist spent time creating mutants of beer yeast that die when it gets warm! Just keep it in the fridge—it tastes better anyway!

h) This person spent years on the federal dole trying to figure out how many different kinds of garbage a rat can smell!




Answers: a) Barbara McClintock, 1983, transposable genetic elements; b) James Watson and Francis Crick, 1962, DNA double helix; c) Joshua Lederberg, 1958, bacterial conjugation; d) Eric Kandel, 2000, signal transduction in Aplysia; e) Edward B. Lewis, 1995, genetic control of early embryonic development; f) Stanley Prusiner, 1997, prions; g) Leland Hartwell, 2001, cell cycle regulation; h) Linda Buck, 2004, odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.

Dorkins Genome Project a Failure; DNA refuses to be sequenced

Jim Watson was the first person to sequence his own genome. Or perhaps it was Craig Venter. Then it was George Church, Misha Angrist, Steven Pinker, the PGP 10, San Francisco 8, and the Jackson 5. Now, Dick Dorkins, evolutionary biologist and President of the atheistic Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design, Theology, Or Other Nonsense (SPITOON) has attempted to sequence his own genome. But it simply can’t be bothered to be sequenced.

Dorkins is best known for his book, The Self-Indulgent Gene (1986), which argued that evolution acts at the level of college students. Keggers, bad tattoos, intramural sports, and sleeping through poli sci seminars, he argued, were simply contemporary expressions of the ancient evolutionary drive to fuck off. Humans, Dorkins wrote, were hard-wired to oversleep for tests, oversell their achievements and ideas, sleep with their best friend’s partner, and get hammered the night before job interviews. Dorkins believes self-promotion and slacking are not only human nature; they are a key driver of natural selection.

The reason lies in our DNA. Early in human evolution, those individuals who did the least work tended to survive to have the most offspring, because while everyone else was out hunting and gathering, the slackers were cuckolding everyone they could get their hairy hands on. As a result, when the rest of the clan returned, the slow, lazy, and generally clueless had appointed themselves chief and controlled the clan.

In sequencing his own genome, Dorkins boldly put his theories to the ultimate test. And his genes spoke. “Dude, WTF?, It’s not even breakfast time,” they said, despite the fact that it was well past noon when researchers ran Dorkins’s DNA through their new high-throughput automated sequencers. And then the sequencers clogged, stalled, and ultimately crashed. Dorkins’s colossally self-centered and bored genes would not be sequenced.

“It was a total mess,” said Dirk Erlenmeyer, a technician at GenesRUs, the company that did the sequencing. “Nucleotides just spilled out onto the floor, As, C, Gs, and Ts, everywhere underfoot, crunching like cockroaches wherever you walked. The floor was literally crawling with DNA.” Doing an an uncanny imitation of Monty Python’s Terry Jones, Erlenmeyer said, “Bleagh!” It has taken days to get the lab cleaned up; it will take even longer to explain what happened.

The result has researchers scrambling for answers. In the early years of genomics, it was believed that long stretches of DNA were too difficult to be sequenced, because they were too repetitive; shotgun sequencing methods were thought useless.

It turns out that large sections of our chromosomes are simply unwilling to be sequenced. According to the results of a Genome-Wide Inference Study (GWIS, pronounced “Gee-whiz”), up to 20 percent of genomes flat-out refuse to be sequenced, whether out of arrogance, petulance, or sheer ennui.

The results could have far-reaching implications. Evolutionary psychologists claim that Dorkins’s self-indulgent gene thesis could explain much about contemporary politics. Preliminary results indicate 95% homology between those intractable regions of Dorkins’s DNA and certain key genes in US Congressmen. Those genes, once labeled “feeblemindedness” in bygone, politically incorrect days, are now included in genome profiles for intelligence. Alas, presence of these sequences have been shown to lower IQ by some 40 points.

Some researchers are claiming that DNA results prove that unenlightened self-interest has taken root at the heart of American politics. “DNA results prove that unenlightened self-interest has taken root at the heart of American politics,” said C. M. Ishmael, author of a potent recent study on thalassophilia.

Science continues to search for answers.