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Sarah Palin has shown herself to be unfit to serve as Vice President more times than I can count -- for her lack of interest in foreign affairs, for her lack of knowledge of the Supreme Court, for her willingness to divide the country into pro-American and anti-American based on political ideology, and on and on.

And while each of these single issues disqualifies her in my mind, none of them really struck home on a deep, personal level.  Until today.

Today Palin gave her first policy speech in Pittsburgh, and with this one sentence she failed more spectacularly than should have been remotely possible in carefully written, highly prepared remarks:

Sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good.  Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.  I kid you not!

Why does this sentence hit home to me?  Because I'm a molecular biologist -- part of non-America in my elite, nearly universally Democratic ivory tower where I make a low wage and try to improve humanity through science -- and I use model organisms like fruit flies every day in my research.

Little or nothing to do with the public good.

So fruit flies are a joke to you, Governor Palin?  I guess you have a point.  I mean, look at em!

What could those little things have to do with helping humanity, right?

Other than providing the basis for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1995, I mean.  The Nobel that was awarded to Edward Lewis, Christine Nüsslein-Volhard, and Eric Wieschaus for discovering the methods by which an egg - a single cell - patterns itself into bodily segments.  Which has helped us to understand severe genetic abnormalities that cause major body patterning defects.

Other than that.

Oh, and I hear we're giving money to people to study yeast!  The stuff we make beer and bread with!

What are these scientists doing with millions of dollars from the NIH, making better beer?!?

Other than providing the basis for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2001, I mean.  The Nobel that was awarded to Lee Hartwell, Tim Hunt, and Sir Paul Nurse for discovering the basic components of the cell cycle.  You know, that thing that underlies cancer.

Other than that.

(I heard they used frog cells in the early experiments, too!  How silly!)

And did you hear about the money we're giving to scientists to study worms?  Not even earthworms, but microscopic little worms!  I mean, look:

Ha!  What could those things could have to do with humans!

Other than providing the basis for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2006, I mean.  The Nobel that went to Andrew Fire and Craig Mello for discovering microRNAs, those bleeding-edge little RNAs that have been found to regulate pretty much everything in the body.

Other than that.


The truth is that model organisms are how we molecular biologists study biology.  We use yeast to study metabolism and the cell cycle (among many other things).  We use worms to study the nervous system and aging (among many other things).  We use fruit flies to study traits that are genetic (almost everything).

Richard Wolffe got it exactly right on Countdown tonight:

Keith I'm going to be as restrained and measured as I possibly can about this, but this is the most mindless, ignorant uninformed comment that we have seen from Governor Palin so far...fruit flies aren't just to do with this kind of research.  They are a standard scientific model in genetic research along with a whole range of other organisms and cells...

Why do we use model organisms to study human biology?  Well, it's kind of hard to tinker with live humans.  Ethics and what not.  

And why is it even possible to study human biology using model organisms?  That answer is simple - evolution.  Yeast, worms, fruit flies, slime molds, corn, humans - we all have the same common ancestor.  Our basic components are the same.  It's shocking to think about, but it's true.  Our basic components are the same as those in single-celled yeast at the molecular level.  That's why studying the yeast cell cycle means studying the human cell cycle.  There are differences, of course.  But they're not nearly as big as you would think.

I'm not really all that shocked that Sarah Palin didn't know this.  She doesn't even believe in evolution, after all.  But that she has advisers and speechwriters who don't really, really scares me.

Think about what our next President is going to have to face.  They're going to have to preside over a massive reshaping of our economy and our educational system (the New Economy).  The Green Sector is just beginning, and every child is going to need to be educated to join it.

And Sarah Palin is woefully unfit to preside over that shift.

Originally posted to jforman on Fri Oct 24, 2008 at 09:19 PM PDT.

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