William Doonan

I write books and stories.

MedicineLand: Chapter Five

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Julia still had an hour before class so she checked in with Carson in the Microarray lab.  She found him seated in his wheelchair, his hands clasped over his belly like a mechanized Buddha, watching through the thick glass as Prometheus, their helium-cooled mainframe, extended its robotic arm to deposit a droplet of liquid DNA on a nylon pad.

“He’s like a god,” Carson said in admiration.

“Like a god, but not quite,” said Julia.  “Prometheus was a titan.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I can’t remember,” she said.  “I think they were somewhere between gods and humans.  What’s he doing today?”

“Eleventh chromosome, we’re near the centromere.”

“Thank you, Carson,” she said.  “I know that much, we’ve been there for a more than a week.”

He handed her the printout where the precise location of the individual genes were recorded.  “You know we’re months ahead of schedule.”

“And we still haven’t found anything,” Julia reminded him.

“Yeah, but think about it.  The human genome is sequenced eight years early.  Now with Prometheus, we’re detecting genetic activity, wait,” he paused.  “I calculated it.  We’re decoding protein signatures 167 times faster than we were a year ago.”

“And we still haven’t found anything,” Julia repeated, “with ten months of funding remaining.”

Two more students walked through the sealed door into the room.

“Don’t you come in here with that fucking sandwich,” Julia scolded.

They turned in unison and left.

“Let me play around a bit,” Carson said.  “I’m getting bored with this.  I downloaded the first 50,000 sequences on the twenty-first chromosome.  I want to start on it this weekend.”

“I didn’t think the twenty-first was on line yet.”

“It’s not.  The National Science Foundation has not yet certified it for funded research, but it’s public domain.  I took it off the internet.”

Julia scanned the printout but found nothing of interest.  “Then we can’t use it, Carson.  Plug that data into the computer and we are out of compliance.  We could lose our grant.”

“Come on, Professor,” he said.  “Is that how Isaac Newton would have responded?  Would Gregor Mendel have stopped playing with his peas if the abbot told him he was out of compliance?”

Julia ignored the comment.  “Let’s finish the eleventh.  We will get to the twenty-first in about a month or so, right?  By that time, NSF will have approved the public version.”

“Let me have a go at it over the weekend.”

“This thing leases for eighty grand a month,” she said, pointing to Prometheus.  “That’s why it will be in use over the weekend.  Sharon is going to be running her tests.”

“Sharon went into labor this morning.”

Julia turned.  “She was pregnant, that’s right.  Then you can finish the eleventh chromosome this weekend.”

“I can’t,” he said.  “It’s my niece’s birthday.”

“And you’d blow her off to work on the twenty-first.”

“Yes.  I’ll start the arrays on Friday night and finish Sunday night.”

Julia fit the morning printout into the binder.  “You have dialysis on Saturday.”

“I can do it here,” he said.  “My dad bought  me a personal dialysis machine.  I can do it here..”

She smiled and sat across from him.  “Why the twenty-first?  We’ve written it in as nonessential.  We get to it if time permits.”

“I’ve been thinking about Down’s syndrome.”

“Trisomy 21,” she said.  “Individuals inflicted with it have three copies of the twenty-first chromosome.  They suffer from moderate to profound mental retardation, heart defects, and systematic developmental problems.”

“Right.”  Carson nodded.  “Developmental problems.  Timing is off.  Baby teeth don’t fall out on time.  Puberty is a mess.”

“And death is premature,” Julia added.  “But that’s not because of a control gene; it’s because there are three chromosomes instead of two.  Genes on one chromosome communicate with their partners on the other chromosome in each of the twenty-three pairs.  When you throw in an extra chromosome, the result is like static.”

“And the static interrupts the communication,” Carson continued.  “So a master control gene that we identity this weekend, diagnoses the interruption, perceives that it is not rectifiable, and begins coding for cellular and regulatory destruction.  That’s why the individuals die prematurely.”

Julia shook her head.  “And we’ll share the Nobel Prize.”

“It makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“No,” she said.  “It doesn’t, Carson.  The static itself is the problem.  If a gene can’t locate and communicate with its partner, it can’t do its job.  If there are three copies of the twenty-first chromosome, then something like six thousand genes can’t find their mates.  That’s why the individuals die prematurely.”

Carson pushed the joystick on his armrest and the wheelchair moved forward, then spun around in circles.

“You’re going to make yourself dizzy,” Julia warned.

“It helps me think.”

“I want this just as much as you do,” she said.

“I know.”

“I don’t think the master metabolic controller would be on the twenty-first.”

“I’ll start the arrays on Friday night and finish Sunday night.”

Julia checked her watch.  “I’ve got to go to class,” she said.  “Why not?  We’re not getting anywhere this way.”


Written by williamdoonan

October 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Posted in MedicineLand, Mystery

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