With the election fast approaching, I am more and more shocked at what political campaigns will do and how much they will lie in order to try to win (ever seen Election?). The McCain campaign continues to awe me in the sheer stupidity of all the things they do. The latest thing is our dear friend Sarah Palin, the (good god, does she know ANYTHING?) VP candidate for the Republican party. She was recently talking about "earmarks" which politicians tack on to bills to get their special interests taken care of. She happened to screech over into my territory (research) and she really made a misstep. She claimed that earmarks had been going to "Fruit Fly Research in Paris, France". She then said, "I kid you not, this is where money is going and it's not benefiting all Americans".
Here you go, Sarah, straight from my heart.
As scientists, we're a plucky group. We're unable to do research on human beings (that whole unethical thing) so we tend to use "model systems". These are well studied, generally genetically similar or identical animal models which we can use to model disease states, try to figure out how stuff works, etc. One of the model systems we use is the "fruit fly", otherwise known as Drosophila, and it was originally used in breeding experiments. Work on Drosophila by Thomas Hunt Morgan led to some major advancements in modern genetics as well as its use in modern labs today. Drosophila is a little powerhouse. They are really amazing creatures and we can study everything from early development to cell movement, biochemistry, adult behavior, stem cell maintenance and self renewal, aging, life extension, diabetes, alzheimers, as well as a plethora of other things. And do you wanna know a secret. Lean in close, because it's a doozy! Lots of the things the Drosophila have, you have too! Drosophila have many, many genes that are conserved right up to human. And you know what else is amazing? These gene products behave similarly too! Can you believe it? So, essentially, we can study processes that occur in a whole organism, generate many, many, many of these organisms, and try to make predictions on how things will behave in humans. We can then translate our findings in Drosophila and try them out in, say, mice. They're vertebrates, mammalian, so a little closer to what humans might be like. Because of evolution, so many things, including which genes you have and how they function are conserved from a tiny little fruit fly to human beings! Isn't that amazing? But, of course, I can't expect the VP candidate to understand this. I can't expect her to condone things that might further support evolution, can I? The funny thing is that she was talking about trying to get money for kids with disabilities and kids with special needs. She didn't even realize that perhaps some of the "Fruit fly research" could eventually lead to some treatments for diseases that kids with special needs have! Her son has Down's syndrome, which is caused by trisomy 21, meaning individuals with this have three copies of chromosome 21 (instead of 2 - usually have two from their mother and one from their father) - a genetic disease which is being studied in these "model systems" which the government's money supports.
The government supports medical based research through the National Institutes of Health, a part of the federal gov't supported with taxpayer money. If we did not support research, how would we come up with the causes and treatments for diseases or try to understand how stem cell work for therapeutic work? How would we study the causes of breast cancer (or any cancer for that matter) which involves genome instability, errant development, and (possibly) cells adopting a "stem cell-like" fate? Sadly, all of us will, at one point, be touched very closely by disease. For me, my Uncle Dennis died at a very young age from prostate cancer. This research is necessary, it is vital to the health of our country and our world. It is not something to make fun of, just because you don't understand the value of research done on model organism. I like Obama's approach best - let the scientists figure it out and base policies on their findings. Smart man.