Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Here come the widders

Friday was just amazing - I got a free lunch! One of my colleagues at The Institute had arranged to bring a visiting speaker to address our students at noon, which was great good timing for me because I now have maths and stats classes all Friday morning. Noon on Friday also works well because there are parallel classes for 1st Year Biology [to make up the numbers and enthusiasm] and 4th Year Molecular Biology and Immunology [who might know something]. Last week's guest speaker was Michel Dugon from NUIG who is mad about the spiders.  I have asserted before that Des Higgins knows more than anybody else about the taxonomy of Irish spiders but I might have to qualify that now.

Dugon is one of those classical evolutionary biologists who is happiest out in the field. I'm an evolutionary biologist too, but I function better in my head than on my knees in the grass like Louis Agassiz. How do you put order on your fascination by the living world so that, just maybe, you can earn a living doing what you love? One avenue is to focus on a small area of the biosphere until you know more about it than anyone else and then convince a highly critical group pf competing professionals that your research proposals are a) interesting and b) possible in a specified time-frame and for a specified amount of money. For maybe 50 years before 2000, that was all that was required because nobody was confident that they knew where the neatest ideas, the niftiest techniques, the very future were going to spring from. Since about 1990 [yes there is some overlap] small minded nobodies have decided that research will only be funded if it has 'utility'.  If, in other words, there was a third criterion c) likely to pay back on the tax-payers' investment. This wrecks my head with its stupidity because x) nobody knows where the truly original work will spring from y) if it's very likely to give pay-back in 5 years it's not science, it's development and multi-national Megacorp will be happy to pay for it.  The Future of Ireland as a technological nation FITNa depends on the politicians taking a risk; we cannot compete with the long pockets in the US, UK and BRD if we just do same-old same-old.

Dr Dugon is taking a plunge that a recently introduced, and so convenient for sampling, species of poisonous spider may hold the key to innovative treatments for cancer and infectious disease. Same thing really if you buy into the all cancers and many autoimmune diseases are triggered by viruses idea.  The interesting interloper is Steatoda nobilis [R about 2x life-size with characteristic 'skull-like' marks on its addomen], aka the false widow. Its common name hinges on its superficial similarity to its relative the black widow Latrodectus spp. spiders which are considerably more toxic than Steatoda. Nevertheless, the false widow will give you a painful bite if you annoy it. S. nobilis is probably native to Madeira and/or the Canaries and was first recorded in England in 1879 where it retained a toehold in places where it was warm enough year-round; i.e. mostly in towns and cities. In the last few years of the last century, perhaps triggered by a succession of mild winters [arrrgh: Global Warming brings on the Killer Spiders . . . not], this small [about 1 cm from leg to opposite leg] arachnid hitched a ride across the Irish Sea and was identified 1997 in Dublin and its suburbs. Since then it has spread to pretty much every county where it has been carefully looked for.

Like the spread of Lyme disease, that makes it kind of interesting as a case study of an expanding ecological niche but that's not going to butter the bread. On the other hand, as basic research is carried out on the mode of action of false widow toxins, there is increasing evidence that this cocktail of compounds can be re-purposed to target cancer cells. The basic research is on the nano-scale because the spiders are so small that they can only produce and store 0.3μl [that's less than a cu.mm] of venom and that takes them 2 weeks of intense biochemical effort. You need minimum 10μl of the stuff to run through the instruments which tell you what's in it. But I can't tell you any more of the details because Dr Dugon, like everyone else in [Irish] science is under pressure from the people who manage the overheads at his university.  They want him to row back on the pro bono; and the outreach talks on the radio; and inspiring students with a genuine fascination with the living world . . . and start monetising his ideas. Spilling the intellectual property in public means that it is not patentable. It's really expensive to run a university nowadays: so many technology-transfer managers, so many people in HR, so many reports to file, so many forms to fill in, and innumerable meetings about 5 year plans and the new corporate logo to attend.

But I'll tell ya this. After his talk our lunch was delayed for 20 minutes because he was surrounded by 20+ students who wanted to pet his scorpion, hold his spider and talk to him about his time in Malaysia. That sort of enthusiasm is The Future of Irish science and it needs to be nurtured. If, as current policy seems to desire, every scientist is making money rather than earning it, there will be No Future.

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