Science: An Ongoing Detective Story

A woman scientist at the 29th Fungal Genetics Conference held at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, in March 2017, sponsored by the Genetics Society of America. I gave the Fungal Conference Perkins/Metzenberg Lecture in 1993, and I am pleased to see such growth in the field and the rise of women in science.

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I’ve not been at the bench in science for over ten years. While since devoting my time to a more sedentary, different profession as writer of memoirs and family sagas (www.cardyraper.com), I’m still fascinated by what’s going on in science, especially genetics.

Last month I escaped a 20-inch snowfall in Burlington, VT, to attend the twenty-ninth Fungal Genetics Conference at Asilomar, CA, on beautiful Monterey Bay. I went to just listen and learn. And this is what I learned:   1) Young folks give better talks than we old folks of the past. 2) New investigative tools allow these youngsters to find out more in two months than we old fogies could have done in years. 3) Women have ascended to at  least half the numbers, maybe more, of scientists in this field.  4) The science of genetics holds more unforeseen mysteries than ever!

Ha, we thought DNA was the absolute blueprint of how living creatures look, behave, and reproduce—not so. RNA (an evolutionary precedent of DNA) and proteins (the products of a special kind of RNA that translates the DNA message) have a lot to say. What’s more, environment shapes their function! A whole new field of epigenetics is taking off.

I used to think we had to wait for mutations in the DNA to adapt to a changing environment, but now we know it’s possible to adapt through small RNAs that alter expression of the genome.

If I had another life to live, I’d go for epigenetics as a master detective.

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Still Learning New Things…

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I’ve been away since starting this blog: to sunny California for a meeting of 950 fungal geneticists at a spectacular setting called Asilomar on Monterey Bay. Asilomar is a state park with an ocean beach, rustic cottages, central meeting halls, and a comfortable large dining facility. The fungal folk have been gathering there from all over the world every other year since the nineteen eighties.

I learn new things every time I go.

This time, I was quite astonished to learn that eighty percent of all plants on earth are closely associated with fungi called mycorrhizalt fungi Most live underground and make vast networks of conduits conveying essential nutrients to the roots of plants. If it weren’t for these fungi, we animals would be largely deprived of our food chain base as well as the forests we know.

I realize all the more now how interconnected all life is: fungi feed plants but also feed off them; pollinating bugs sustain plant reproduction; animals eat plants and breath their oxygen; and bacteria help it all along in their own way, as the flora of our guts that help us to digest our food. We humans tend to think of those smaller creatures as a menace to our health, but they are far more helpful than harmful.

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