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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Top Ten Misunderstood Terms in Biology

If you ever had the misfortune of sitting next to a bunch of biogeeks in the cafeteria during lunch, you might overhear such frightening terms like "cloning" and "transformation" casually thrown about like nobody's business.

Are they growing an army of Boba Fetts in a giant vat?

The HORROR!

At Fresh Brainz we have long realized that the truth is always funnier.

Thus, we have compiled a list of the top ten most misunderstood terms in biology just for you!

10. Probes / Microsatellites

Everyone knows that biologists are really wannabe physicists who failed their maths but don't suck enough to become social scientists. As such, fanciful terms from such real sciences like astrophysics may enter into their vocabulary.

Probes for example, are neither anal implements nor interplanetary spacecraft - they are simply short, specific stretches of DNA or RNA that are tagged with some kind of labels (chemical or radioactive tags). They are used to help pick out the large sections of DNA that you want.

Likewise microsatellites are not the latest cost-saving inventions from NASA; they are repeat sequences in genomic DNA which are unique to every person, thus useful for forensic identification.

9. Transformation

While this term immediately brings to mind the howls of a werewolf on a full moon night, those of us born in the 70's know that it actually reflects the struggle between Autobots and the Decepticons.

Not really.

Transformation has two meanings in biology.

The more routine meaning refers to the process where bacteria cells are made to take up plasmid DNA (a circular form of DNA), usually using heat shock or an electric pulse. They can then be used as a tool to produce more of these plasmids for research purposes.

When talking about mammalian cell culture though, transformation has a more scary meaning. Transformed cells in this case resemble cancer cells - they don't form a monolayer and they divide uncontrollably. These cells are the basis of long-term cell lines which are helpful research tools in the study of cancer and many other biological processes.

8. Clone

The string of such intellectual flicks as Judge Dredd and The Sixth Day have firmly implanted the images of giant vats and fast-growing embryos into the minds of the public consciousness whenever the term "cloning" appears.

Either that or a sheep with giant boobs.

Anyway, the routine meaning of "clone" is simply a process to copy a piece of DNA using bacterial plasmids. "Clones" are usually tubes of bacteria carrying that DNA (as a matter of convention a "whole" DNA clone should contain one gene worth of material, otherwise it's a "sub-clone").

Of course Dolly the sheep is also a "clone", at the level of a whole organism. But she wasn't grown in a vat. I hope people are aware that in this context, a clone has the same meaning as an identical twin.

7. Library

Not a depository of knowledge as such, but a collection of DNA fragments that have been randomly chopped up and inserted into either bacteria or lambda phages.

For example, the zebrafish genomic library contains the entire zebrafish genomic DNA cloned into millions of bacterial artificial chromosomes (BAC). You have to sequence this library or screen it using probes in order to extract useful information.

6. Media

Although not inclined towards publicity except when they win Nobel prizes, biologists do use media every day.

Which are simply solutions used to grow stuff in.

Luria-Bertani (LB) media, a yellow solution that smells vaguely like chicken soup, is used for growing bacteria. Dulbecco's Modified Eagle's Medium (DMEM) is a red solution often used as part of the mixture for growing mammalian cells.

And to the horrified receptionist who asked about the contents of DMEM a long time ago:

No, it does NOT contain any actual eagles.

5. Literature

In addition to their obsession with media, all scientists read up their literature often. However, none of these works will ever win a Pulitzer Prize for literary excellence.

Their format is too stiff, the vocabulary often unintelligible and there is no stylish prose to speak of. In fact, most of the time their contents are not even written in English - instead there is a smattering of technical terms amidst huge blocks of mathematical equations (damn you structural biologists!)

Literature refers the vast body of research publications in the scientific community.

I don't know what's the history behind this, but yes, I do think it's a cruel joke to consider scientific papers as "literature".

4. Selection

I understand that when Charles Darwin coined the term "natural selection" he was comparing it to the artificial selection process that dog breeders use. This, however was an unfortunate choice of words that has encumbered evolutionary biologists ever since.

Nature isn't actively "selecting" anyone - individuals that make it to reproductive age are simply survivors in their environment. People have suggested "natural preservation" to make this process sound less personified.

In daily use, "selection" is often accomplished using plasmid DNA containing antibiotic-resistant genes. Only bacteria containing the DNA we want will grow in media that contain antibiotics.

3. Design

A term often used by professors in class, "design" in biology refers to the organization of the biological process or structure. It doesn't mean that the structure is purposely designed to fulfill its current function.

Regrettably, just like "selection" suggests a selector, so "design" hints at a designer - an implication not lost on Intelligent Design supporters desperate to "mine" the quotes of famous scientists.

2. Theory / Model

Used in everyday language to describe a mere hunch, "theory" in science has a far more substantial status.

It is equivalent in rank to "Law" or "Fact". Only well-supported ideas, with plenty of evidence gained using different approaches, can be promoted to the rank of Theory.

"Guesstimates" in science are called hypotheses, or models.

Sadly "models" in common-speak refers either to the "assemble it yourself" variety found in toy stores, or the "can disassemble anytime" type found in fashion shows.

1. God

And most misunderstood term in biology (perhaps in all of science) is: God.

Top scientists, even the not-so-religious ones, sometimes mention God when describing biological processes to the general public.

To many scientists, God essentially means Nature. When they use this term, they allude to the more mysterious, currently unknown mechanisms behind the wonders of Nature.

Unfortunately, in the common language, God refers to a specific deity, who is associated with specific belief systems, who exists outside of Nature but yet is directly involved with the personal lives of every single human being on this planet.

So whenever a scientist mentions God, there will be many people interpreting this as an expression of support for their own belief system.

Take for example, my belief in a God of Chocolate, which is strengthened every time a prominent scientist says "God".

Oops! That's not what they really meant.


Would you like to know more?

- about terms in molecular biology
- about
Einstein's God
- about the
most abused catchphrases in science

2 Comments:

Memphis said...

Sheep with big boobs????? Are you quite sure this is what most people think of when they talk cloning??? LOL Give me giant vats and super judges any day!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Indeed.

Where there are giant vats, there is always teriyaki sauce.

Yum!