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Chemical Eye on Genes Made for America
by Preston MacDougall


February 17, 2006

Choices. Sometimes you have them, sometimes you don't.

For instance, when my wife started going into hard labor during the delivery of our first child, at one point the pain seemed to increase exponentially. Our Lamaze classes had prepared for us for a "natural" birth, but at the moment I saw fear in her eyes, and sensed she was thinking of escape. I tried to focus her thoughts by matter-of-factly telling her that she "had no choice", and that I would stay and help her through it.

She focused all right - on me - and then hurled a stream of expletives that had not crossed my darling's lips before, or since. The attending nurse fished the word "epidural" from that, and soon the pain was controlled. Probably with lidocaine hydrochloride, the water-soluble form of this synthetic alkaloid compound.

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The alkaloid family of compounds, which also includes caffeine and cocaine, used to be named the vegetable alkalis. They were so-named because, like the inorganic alkalis lye and caustic potash, they are basic as opposed to acidic. However, until the maturation of organic chemistry came about, they could only be obtained from plants. The search for efficient synthetic pathways to medicinally active natural products, or purely artificial derivatives, continues to be one of the most intellectually challenging adventures in science, and will be for the foreseeable future. Through advances in organic chemistry, more people will have more choices for treating their medical conditions.

More recently, and much more prosaically, I needed to buy a pair of blue jeans. Lacking confidence in my fashion sense, my wife suggested that our 14 year-old daughter go shopping with me. The choices were mind-boggling. There were not only brands, but styles of jeans that I had never heard of. To my daughter, this was a sign of progress. But I had trouble focusing.

I have read that a couple of years ago, the Levi Strauss Company closed their last factory in the U.S., relying on cheap labor overseas to remain competitive. In the stores, I found this to be the case for other familiar brands as well. I did notice some designer jeans that were made in New York. Let's call them the "patriotic jeans". I liked their style and fit, and they received the daughter's approval, but they had a three-figure price. I went home empty-handed.

The next day I was grocery shopping with my wife at a Wal-Mart Supercenter. I wandered from the produce section to the clothing section, and encountered yet more brands and styles of blue jeans. This time, however, I had no trouble focusing on a single pair. From what I learned from my daughter, they were in-style: "stressed" denim, loose-fitting and a button fly. The price-tag still had three figures, but now there was a decimal after the first. Made in Egypt, let's call these the "selfish jeans". This name refers both to the natural behavior of consumers, and plays on the title of a phenomenal book ("The Selfish Gene") published in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, then and now.

A more recent book, and just as readable by the general public, was written in 1999 by Jonathan Weiner, a Pulitzer prize-winning science writer. "Time, Love, Memory" details the amazing story of the developing science that relates biochemistry to inherited behavior.

Dawkins's book was quite thought-provoking. But when it was published, many of the headline-grabbing experiments were still in the future. Most of these involved fruit flies, such as an experiment done in the mid-90s, by scientists at the NIH, which showed that a particular gene is strongly linked to homosexual behavior, in flies at least. The link was demonstrated by introducing this genetic mutation in such a way that it would only be "expressed" above a pre-determined temperature.

I can only imagine the amazement of Odenwald and Zhang when they were observing their mutated flies. First behaving unremarkably, but then, at the programmed temperature, they began "chaining" as if they were on Brokeback Mountain. This experiment has been repeated, on different fruit flies, and by different scientists.

An excellent nighttime reading choice, "Time, Love, Memory" provides a mind-boggling account of this remarkable area of scientific research. (I note that sexual behavior is only a very small part of the book, but it does grab big headlines.)

I was most intrigued by another fruit fly behavior that seemed to be amenable to chemical manipulation - adventure seeking. You'll have to read the book to see how that conclusion was reached. Again, simply amazing!

America has always attracted adventurous people, from all around the world. While people are not flies, the good news for our economic future is that our immigrant ancestors brought their ancient genes with them.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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Ketchikan, Alaska