Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Who Won the 2012 Nobel Prizes? Part 2

Science for Writers Nobel prize
Welcome to the latest Science for Writers post. Last time we discussed the Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry and Physics. In this post I will be discussing the Nobel Prizes in Medicine/Physiology and Literature.

I have put important words in bold. These words are important in science and I will refer to them throughout the post. It isn't overly important for you to know the exact meaning, so long as you get the gist of what I'm talking about you will be fine following this post.

Writing Links are in italics and these discuss how the science could be used in writing.

Medicine or Physiology

This year the prize was in Medicine and was awarded to Sir John B. Gurdon of the UK, and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan for 'the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent'.

In easier terms, this means they have found that cells in the adult body can be changed to be able to become any type of cell we want (with limitations).

It had previously been thought that a developing foetus had many pluripotent (stem) cells and these then specialised to become skin, muscle, nerve cells, etc... It had always been a forward process. It was thought not to ever go backwards. There are some animals which can regrow lost limbs because they have stem cells, but that is a limited ability.

Gurdon decided to challenge this concept using frogs as his test subjects. In 1962 he removed the nucleus (the bit with all the DNA) from a frog's egg cell and replaced it with the nucleus from a mature, specialised cell from a tadpole's intestine. His theory was the cell nucleus contained all of an organisms DNA and that the genome would still be able to produce pluripotent cells as it does in embryonic development. He was right. The egg was able to clone the tadpole and grow into an adult frog. This means a specialised cell has all the information needed to produce unspecialised cells.

creating pluripotent cells cloning
Diagram of the process
Image courtesy of NobelPrize.org
Writing Link:  This part of the discovery led to cloning. Armed with a little bit of knowledge about cloning, you could write a short story or poem about clones and their interactions. Whilst we haven't cloned a human yet, it is mainly ethical reasons rather than scientific. You may have seen the musical Blood Brothers where two twins are separated at birth and then accidentally find each other. What if that story was about clones and not twins? What consequences would there be if two (or more) clones found each other and went after the scientist or parents who did it? Perhaps two clones could get up to mischief on Halloween scaring people? Cloning opens up a plethora of options in writing fiction.

The issue with the method Gurdon had created was the cell had to be destroyed and altered in order to force it back into pluripotency. The holy grail would be finding a way to make specialised cells revert to being a pluripotent cell without having to destroy a cell in the process.

Enter Yamanaka into the scene. 40 years after Gurdon's initial research Yamanaka did a series of experiments trying to locate the gene(s) needed to control pluripotency in cells. To find these, he studied embryonal stem cells (unspecialised cells in an embryo). He managed to identify several genes that 'kept cells immature'. He and his team then introduced these genes in a variety of combinations into cells that had specialised, specifically fibroblasts (connective tissue). After many combinations they found that a specific combination of four genes was needed to 'reprogram their fibroblasts into immature stem cells'. He called the resulting cells iPS cells, induced pluripotent stem cells. iPS cells can then develop into specialised cells.

creating iPS cells
Diagram of the process
Image courtesy of NobelPrize.org
Writing Link:  iPS cells sound very sci-fi, don't they? What if an alien civilisation has discovered this process and perfected it? Before reading the next section think about the implications of iPS cells.

It is very exciting that we can make cells pluripotent. It means we can reprogram diseased cells to be pluripotent, then compare them to a healthy cell. Currently the technology is being developed for research applications, but I believe one day we will be running treatments with iPS cells. Take a diseased cell out, make it pluripotent, do 'cell surgery' on it and put it back in and let it re-specialise.

iPS cell uses
Diagram of the process
Image courtesy of NobelPrize.org
For more information visit this link for the basic overview of the prize or this link for the geeky explanation. If you prefer video, this link has the prize announcement.


As these posts are more about science, I won't spend long discussing this prize. It was awarded to Mo Yan (pseudonym of Guan Moye) of China, 'who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary'.

Yan 'draws on his youthful experiences' in his book 'Hong gaoliang jiazu' (published 1987 in Japan, and 1993 in English as Red Sorghum) which 'consists of five short stories that unfold and interweave in Gaomi in several turbulent decades of the 20th century.

Some of his writing was deemed 'subversive' because of its 'sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society'.

Yan's latest novel is 'Wa' which was published in 2009 is about China's 'imposition of a single-child policy'.

The only one of his books I've actually heard of is 'Life and Death are Wearing Me Out' published 2008. But the Nobel Prize in literature isn't awarded for writing best-sellers, but to writers who, as Alfreed Nobel said in his will, 'shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction'.

Writing Link:  Could you combine local folk tales with other ideas? Perhaps you could write in a lucid style where abstract concepts are introduced to the reader in a surreal way?

That's it for this post. Next time we will discuss the Peace and Economic Science prizes. Until then you can comment on this post below; I'd love to here from you. Please share this post if you enjoyed it. There are social media buttons at the bottom of the post for your convenience.



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