Monday, January 31, 2011

Mad Science Monday, 1/31/2011

It's been a long time since I've written one of these, but this story is too mad sciencey to pass up.

Mad Reference: "Can Our DNA Electromagnetically 'Teleport' Itself? One Researcher Thinks So" by Clay Dillow at Popular Science, about work by Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier. Uh-oh, the work hasn't been published yet, and apparently first appeared in New Scientist. Going to the press first is a bad sign. Going to New Scientist first (the magazine that reported that SETI had found concrete evidence of alien intelligence, causing SETI scientists to reply "We did what now?") just might mean even you know what you're peddling is nonsense.

Mad Background: Quantum teleportation is a real phenomenon, and it's really interesting to read about. But it has nothing to do with what happened here, so I'm not going to go into detail about it. If you're interested, I recommend the Wikipedia article I linked as a good primer.

The more interesting (and relevant) background is that of Luc Montagnier, the scientists whose lab is reporting this finding. I was first introduced to Dr. Montagnier through the excellent 1993 HBO movie And the Band Played On. And the Band Played On tells the story of the discovery and characterization of AIDS and HIV, and the political nonsense that slowed down the progress of those discoveries. I changed my major to biology shortly after first seeing that movie, in part inspired by it. In the movie, Luc Montagnier (played by Patrick Bauchau) is one of the good guys, fighting against the egomaniacal American biologist Dr. Robert Gallo (played by Alan Alda). The film shows how Gallo pretty clearly (in the movie, not in reality) stole a sample of HIV from Montagnier's lab, and used the sample to fake results showing that he had discovered HIV.

However, around the same time the movie first aired on HBO, a group looking into those allegations published their report. They found that a sample sent by Montagnier's lab to Gallo's had been accidentally contaminated with the sample, and then Gallo legitimately used that sample in his studies. Evidently, Montagnier's lab still has issues with contamination.

Mad Observation: DNA is complicated. People understand very well how it gets copied in cells, but maybe they're wrong. Also, quantum teleportation is really cool (honestly, that's the best set of observations I can come up with to explain what Montagnier did).

Mad Hypothesis: Maybe DNA undergoes quantum teleportation in cells! We have no reason to think this, but let's devise an experiment to test it anyway!

Mad Experiment: Montagnier's lab put two test tubes, one containing a known DNA sequence and the other believed to contain pure water, in a straight-up mad scientist contraption meant to "mute the earth’s natural electromagnetic field to keep it from muddying the results," according to the Popular Science article. They then subjected these tubes to a weak electromagnetic field, because, hey, why not? After several hours, they performed PCR on the pure water tube to see if it contained any DNA.

They All Laughed, But: Holy crap, the tube of pure water totally contained DNA! It must be that quantum stuff! We're geniuses!

We're Still Laughing: From every report I've read, Montagnier's lab didn't do the control experiment, in which both test tubes contained "pure" water. Chances are very good they'd still get the same result.

PCR amplifies any trace of your target DNA. Modern PCR can amplify as little as a single strand of the target DNA. Add to that the fact that DNA is very stable, and thus easy to contaminate your lab with.

I often cook with jalapeños. After slicing them up, I'm careful to wash my hands. But sometimes, even after washing my hands, I touch my eye, and it starts to burn. Were I in Dr. Montagnier's lab, I guess I'd assume those muddying effects from Earth's natural magnetic field were causing bits of the jalapeños on the counter to quantum teleport into my eyes. Since I don't work in Dr. Montagnier's lab, I just assume there was a trace contaminant (jalapeños) left on my fingers, and that got into my eye.

Mad Engineering Applications: Since this research is nonsense, there aren't any. However, were it correct,  there would be all kinds of applications. We'd probably have to stop working on all of the antiviral agents that block them from entering cells; surely viruses could just quantum teleport their DNA into our cells, skipping all the bother of physically entering cells. I'm sure other people could also find uses for this research.

The last time I wrote one of these, the mad scientist I wrote about had a clear claim to that title, but only tongue-in-cheek. Sadly, I think this week the scientist in question may really be mad.