by iampunha | 6/16/2008 04:54:00 PM
Sixty-five years of research, and all she has to show for it, in her death, is the Punnet Square.

Also, work that paved the way for the "If you could pick your child's eye color, would you?" question, among many (and more controversial) others.

Also, jumping genes, genetic information that stays whole even as it moves from one part of a genome to another.

Also, a demonstration of sexual reproduction ... in corn.

Also, a doctorate from Cornell, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, membership in the National Academy of Sciences (its third woman), the presidency of the Genetics Society of America, National Science Foundation recognition, the National Medal of Science, the first MacArthur Foundation Grant. Among other awards.

Oh, and a Nobel Prize.

And a stamp.

Pretty fly for a corny eye.

The owner of that eye (and its twin), Barbara McClintock, was born on June 16, 1902.

For Tupac Shakur, poet, entertainer and activist, who was born on June 16, 1971, and died on September 13, 1996.

Plenty of people change their names. Barbara McClintock had hers changed for her.

No, not because she got married. (She never married and never had children.) Because:

Perhaps because her mother was so stressed by her growing family, Barbara, the third child, learned to entertain herself almost from infancy. This characteristic was so strong that her parents renamed her when she was only four months old. She had been named Eleanor, but her parents decided that “Barbara” was a more appropriate name for a child who showed as much strength and independence as she did.

McClintock's childhood was, shall we say, unorthodox, as the previously cited biography shows. And it's an interesting read, showing that McClintock's mother was OK with changing her daughter's name but not OK with having that daughter live a nontraditional life. Good thing, too, according to Barbara:

“There was not that strong necessity for a personal attachment to anybody. I just didn’t feel it. And I could never understand marriage. I really do not even now....I never went through the experience of requiring it.”

So she was allowed to attend Cornell, where she got her doctorate in botany and proceeded to "[live] for the joy of doing what she liked."

She liked it, and it liked her, as I hinted at in my introduction. And it's fortunate, and we are fortunate, that Barbara McClintock was allowed to pursue her passion, was not forced into a life where her academic pursuits were limited to teaching her children (a noble endeavor, but limiting nonetheless) and helping her husband when he brought work home.

Her biography is interesting, and it shows that she was indeed at home not having to deal with scientists who didn't understand her work or had no previous introduction to her discoveries. (Fittingly, for a career perpetually ahead of its time, McClintock received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 32 years after presenting her paper on the discovery for which she was recognized.)

But her discoveries, which have laid the foundation for much of biological research and teaching, are worth explaining — if for no other reason than that this article is about McClintock, and she was about her work.

One of her discoveries was instead a demonstration of genetic recombination, which (speaking simply, as I am so much not a biologist) is the stuff of sexual reproduction. The careful reader will note that this is one of the ways this happens and that it is not the commonly presented way. There is nothing particularly controversial about this model, but you won't find it taught in many high school biology classes because it isn't the simplest one. ("But why doesn't the one on the far left have as much blue as the others do?" Answer: Because, as in kindergarten, sharing does not imply that each resulting strand of DNA gets half of each original strand's material.)

Part of the resulting problem with not getting into the more complex biological concepts is that you then lose the ability to tell other fascinating stories. I could bore you to tears with lessons on RNA, mRNA, uracil and giant metal-and-wood models of our genetic code, but if you want to start understanding about how insulin was first produced by bacteria, you have to get into more complicated issues in mitosis and the life cycle and function of a cell.

And yeah, great stories, man. Insulin, glowing fish, organisms that eat radiation (someone, again, remind me of the arguments against evolution by natural selection and adaptation?), and someday possibly synthetic, cellular solutions to erythropoesis and muscle replication.

But as in kindergarten, sometimes genetic information is mean. Let's say you're a set of not-so-nice genetic instructions. (I won't tell. Just don't hurt me.) You have plans for replicating these instructions and taking over your host body, which you've made your way to in one or more of various ways. (The list of specific things you can do that might give you this disease is insanely long.) But you need someone to help. And then along comes Mary the concept of a transposon, which is your genetic messenger. You say to this transposon, "Go hie yourself to that unsuspecting Mortimer B. Cell. And don't come back until the message is delivered."

And the message is cancer. Or AIDS. AIDS is caused by HIV, which is a retrovirus, and a retrovirus is like a transposon sniper.

And with the world's best medicine, and with hundreds of millions of dollars going into research on cancer and AIDS, we have a cure for neither. But now you know why retrovirals are part of the future — or at least a good way to stop the progress — of viruses.

There is more to McClintock's life's work, but A) much of it hinges on the information you have before you, and B) sorry, but I really do not feel like teaching myself third-year genetics tonight. Especially since I don't know very much second-year genetics.

Here's how to teach genetics (or anything else):

Aaaaand here's third-year genetics. Note that while this video has plenty of material (much more than the other video, which contains about 15 seconds of actual scientific information), the narrator does an absolutely horrendous job A) teaching the material and B) being interested in it. (Half of why this series works is because I'm so gosh-darned personable.)

Something to think about for Thanksgiving: You know how everyone loves those "There are 457 different colors of corn on this cob!" ornamental (and sometimes actual) corncobs? And y'know how some of the people who love getting all festive for holidays also love talking about how evolution is a big lie?