Mad Cows and Molecular Biology

Michael S. Straka mike.straka at
Mon Apr 1 15:58:10 EST 1996

On 31 Mar 96, Alexander Berezin <berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA> wrote:

>These days press carries many stories on
>the Mad Cows desease. In today's story I have 
>read that Dr. Stanley Prusiner came up with
>an idea of prions (having no genes) quite
>a while ago, but was ignored by the 
>sceintific establishemnt.

Stanley B. Prusiner has a publication record going back to at least 1978
(Biochemistry 17(23): 4978) describing isolation of prions and their
proposed involvement in scrapie, creutzfeld-jakob, kuru, gerstmann-
straussler syndrome, and transmissible encephalopathies.

>Why ? - Because 'Molecular Biology knows
>ALREADY that no life form can exist 
>without DNA/RNA, and, beside, such ideas 
>are nonsense anyway,', etc, etc.
>If the above is true, this is a classic example 
>of how the dominant paradigm-in-fashion [ this 
>time - Molecular Biology ] paralizes, disdains and 
>eradicates all alternative viewpoints and ideas. 

I haven't kept current w/ the prion literature but I was quite 
interested in it for a while; it's a truly fascinating entity.  Perhaps
one of the reasons for the lack of acceptance is that two of the 
proposed mechanisms of prion replication violate the central dogma of
molecular biology: that genetic information flows from nucleic acids to
proteins.  While I agree that very often the paradigm-in-fashion stifles 
conflicting viewpoints, and even though I find prions to be extremely 
interesting critters, the strength of the evidence in favor of direct
involvement of prions, (ten years ago), seemed exciting, yet not entirely 
convincing.  For one thing, the particle had not been reconstituted and 
shown to be biologically active.  That may well have changed...    Even
so, it appears we have not heard the last of this story.

I found it humorous, and then sad, that the popular press has chosen
to characterize mad cow disease as something new.  Sure, this outbreak
may be new, but the diseases I mentioned above have been around for 
a number of years.  It just drives me crazy to read articles written
seemingly for a public whose average reading skill is about the fifth
grade.  But I digress.

>Likewise, we can recall notorious astronomy 
>professors  (almost all of them !) who refused to 
>look through the Galileo's 'devil's tube' because
>they ALREADY knew that there can't be any spots
>on the Sun.
>Any comments ?
>Alex Berezin  

Unfortunately, I don't think we'll EVER have a shortage of people who
"know" certain things and won't let the facts get in their way.  If
scrapie, cruetzfeld-jakob, et al, do in fact turn out to be caused by 
prions, you can bet the farm that the media will have a field day.  
Might even lead to a grand jury or senate investigation!  As you point 
out, it certainly is not the first and won't be the last time that a 
crazy/unpopular/seemingly impossible idea is disdained by "those in the 
know"   Time after time, history has harshly judged those whose minds 
are closed to the facts or to ideas which challenge the comfort of the 
status quo.  As did the Catholic church with Galileo recently, biology
may yet (perhaps already!) vindicate Prusiner.

-Mike Straka, PhD
Instructor, Dept Pediatrics
UCHSC, Denver

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