Tuesday 31 March 2020

Not just a pretty face

On Thursday night, making political hay in the crisis, The Dáil paused in session at 8pm for spontaneous applause for the Corona Front Line. Okay okay, it wasn't as spontaneous as the first such display a month ago in Bergamo; but it was presumably heart-felt. The Plain People of Ireland were invited to join in. I'm institutionalised, I can obey orders, so at precisely 20:00hrs, I stood out in the yard >!<   >!<   >!<   >!< whanging at the business end of a long-handled shovel with a stout stick. I did not hear any echoing response from across the valley - maybe tomorrow.

I'm racking my brains to think of other ways in which I can give back to Ireland for 30+ years of house-room and support. But so far I lack the imagination to find a more proactive niche than practicing strict physical distancing and maintaining the boundaries of our mountain isolation pod. And making the divil of a racket at 8pm, of course. But it turns out that I gave already as I was alerted last week by the science social-network site ResearchGate. Bob, we found a recent citation of your research. This happens, in a desultory fashion, about once a week. I've been in the scientific publication business since 1978 and that's more than 40 years. Getting my findings over the line and into print has been the major failure in Bob's Business Model: I can do the ideas; I can do the experimental design; I can do the data analysis . . . and then I tend to butterfly off to the next bright flower. Nevertheless, helped by coat-tailing on other people's publishomania, I have a string of publications out there and occasionally another scientist will find a nugget of useful information in one or other of these papers and . . . citation:

Analysis of preferred codon usage in the coronavirus N genes and their implications for genome evolution and vaccine design. [PMID]"... ral genes and genomes exhibit varying numbers of synonymous codons depending on the host [PMID 1992]. Additionally, codon usage in a virus is influenced by selection pressure and compositional constra ...". Go us! all that cerebral tricking about 25+ years ago in a field that was conspicuous in having no obvious utility turns out to be a key part in the task of developing a vaccine against Corona viruses. It's not the first time our work in synonymous codon usage has generated payola in the biotech industry. And it's not the first time corona codon usage has appeared in The Blob.

Politics please pay attention! There is a tendency to prefer funding applied research rather than pure science. Applied research is normal science - inserting another brick in the wall; building on a solid pedestrian foundation; likely to yield a pay-back for society in the life-time of this government. It is solid, dependable and boring. Pure science is where you let the hottest minds of your generation off to follow their insatiably curious noses. That has the potential for revealing something really surprising which will game-changer everything for the better.

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