Friday, December 11, 2015

Experience with supervisors, not fungi, united Meyer & Dawson

On January 1st 1863, legend says that Lincoln freed all the slaves.

All but in the science departments of universities.

There graduate students still slave to accidentally discover unexpectedly important things ---- which their supervisors and their pets often take up as their own.

In 1928 Henry Dawson experienced a variant of this.

He had just confirmed and expanded Fred Griffith's accidental discovery of HGT, which Dawson called 'bacterial transformation', only to discover that his supervisor Oswald Avery, together with the Rockefeller Institute, were determined to not let him publish until.


Until he confirmed and re confirmed and re-re confirmed his evidence - 'running out the clock' is what they call it in sports, 'talking out the clock' in politics and in court rooms.

Delay Delay Delay.

The Rockefeller leadership suspected the quietly stubborn Dawson would not decide, on his own, that to advance his career he better put his unwelcome research in the wastepaper basket of never never land, as his other colleagues in Avery's lab had learned to do.

Avery and the Rockefeller were gunning for a Nobel prize for Avery's work in proving that for each sub-species cum variant of virulent microbes there were fixed and specific markers that would enable medical scientists to definitely identify these strains.

And, in time, to then develop specific serums to destroy specific microbe strains' ability to cause fatal disease.

The major killer, S. Pneumococcus, with its 100 different strains, was Avery and Rockefeller's first target.

Dawson --- from Avery's own lab, for God's Sake ! --- was about to shower on this victory parade.

Because HGT (horizontal gift transfers) allowed a variant of pneumococcus ID-ed say as as Type 4 (that is, making specific markers labelled as Type 4) at the start of a patient's stay in hospital and currently being successfully killed off with Type 4 specific serum, to then take up new genes that make Type 9 markers from the environment.

It then shuts off its original genes making Type 4 markers and becomes invisible to the deadly Type 4 serum.

The result ? The patient dies in the long interval between being re-typed as now Type 9 infected and when some rare Type 9 serum can be manufactured in New York and then brought to the patient's hospital in Calgary.

For a half century, the entire world's medical science efforts had focused on immunology and now Dawson was perhaps about to give it a mortal blow.

No one - including Dawson - was yet convinced the scenario I just laid out could actually ever happen inside pneumonia patients but Dawson's theory might just move the Nobel Committee to deny a prize to Avery and the Rockefeller. And the Rockefeller Institute so badly wanted another Nobel Prize.

After Avery got his non-revokable prize, let Dawson publish if he wished.

Preferably at another research centre, re-doing his Rockefeller work with their facilities, to further separate his heretic views from Avery's prize.

In all this 'doing and re-doing' Dawson, if nothing else, became an expert in safely growing relatively large amounts of highly dangerous bacteria.

But he had never, until September 1940, as far as I can tell, done anything with fungi or their preferred means of metabolical survival ---- fermentation.

But Karl Meyer had - also in 1928 - and it should have been his ticket to fortune and fame.

But for the intervention of one of those all-powerful lab supervisor.

Most beings - not just fungi - use fermentation, at times, to obtain the energy needed for life.

Humans learn this from the stiff muscles they get if they run too hard too long --- excessive (lactic) acid, produced from using fermentation to provide extra energy to supplement their body's limited ability to deliver and burn up oxygen, literally irritates their muscles.

Meyer was studying how fermentation works in humans by looking at its workings in frogs when he discovered the enzyme that supposedly organized the process, zymase (and something by the way known to be extremely vital to fungi) needed another enzyme to actually work.

His supervisor, Nobel winning Otto Meyerhof, ordered Meyer not to investigate what that co-enzyme might be, but instead to turn the problem over to the supervisor's favoured chemist among the small team, Karl Lohmann.

In 1929 Lohmann 'discovered' ATP, which as anyone who has ever taken science 101knows is the basic energy currency for all life.

He never got a Nobel prize for this monumental discovery.

Nor did Meyer, obviously.

Now Meyerhof was not your typical German crusty aristocratic academic supervisor and his tiny lab team was unusually collegiate even by today's standards.

But still Meyer needed a career boost far more than Lohmann did - if they had done the further developmental work together and then shared the authorship, who knows what would have happened ?

Meyer and Dawson were bound together as strong colleagues by both being former frontline soldiers (a rarity in American research hospitals in 1940), by preferring to do hands-on work themselves rather than run big labs from behind a desk and because they both had seen important research work shut down by kindly but strong-willed and all powerful lab supervisors.

But only Meyer had any experience in the area of fungi biochemistry....

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