November 4, 2013
Until 1982, anyone who used insulin to manage their diabetes got it from what we’d now think of as an unusual source: the pancreases of cows and pigs, harvested from slaughterhouses and shipped en masse to pharmaceutical processing plants. But there were problems with getting all our insulin this way—fluctuations in the meat market affected the price of the drug, and projected increases in the number of diabetic people made scientists worry that shortfalls in insulin supply could strike within the next few decades.
That all changed with the introduction of Humulin, the first synthetic human insulin. But the drug was a milestone for another reason, too: It was the first commercial product to come out of genetic engineering, synthesized by bacteria that had been altered to include the gene for producing human insulin.
Last year, the American History Museum acquired a handful of key items used to create Humulin from Genentech, the San Francisco company responsible for its development, and put them on view last week in a display titled “The Birth of Biotech,” giving visitors a look into the dawn of the era of genetic engineering.
Genentech’s work began with a discovery made in the 1970s by a pair of Bay Area scientists, Herbert Boyer of UC San Francisco and Stanley Cohen of Stanford: Genes from multi-cellular organisms, including humans, could be implanted into bacteria and still function normally. Soon afterward, they teamed with venture capitalist Robert Swanson to form the company, with the hope of using genetic engineering to create a commercially viable product.
Early on, they decided insulin was a logical choice. “It was convenient. It was an easy protein to handle, and it was obviously something that a lot of people needed,” says Diane Wendt, a Smithsonian curator who worked on the display.
One of their first achievements was synthetically building the human insulin gene in the lab, a single genetic base pair at a time. In order to check the accuracy of their sequence, they used a technique called gel electrophoresis, in which electricity forces the DNA through a gel. Because larger pieces of DNA migrate more slowly than smaller pieces, the process effectively filters the genetic material by size, allowing researchers to pick out the pieces they want, one of the key steps in early genetic sequencing methods.
Electrophoresis is still widely used, but the equipment donated by Genentech is decidedly more improvised than the standard setups seen in labs today. “You can see it’s sort of made by hand,” says Mallory Warner, who also worked on the display. “They used glass plates and binder clips, because they were working really quickly all the time and they wanted something they could take apart and clean easily.”
In order to manipulate DNA and other microscopic molecules, the researchers used a variety of tiny glass instruments. They made many of these tools themselves with a device called a microforge—essentially, a tool shop in extreme miniature, equipped with its own microscope so the makers could see what they were doing.
After synthesizing a gene for insulin, the scientists needed to assimilate it into a bacterium’s DNA so that the organism would produce insulin on its own. They used a variety of enzymes to do so, including Eco R1, a chemical that cuts DNA in a precise location, based on the surrounding base pairs. Researchers extracted small DNA molecules called plasmids from the bacterium, severed them with these enzymes, then used other enzymes to stitch the synthetic insulin gene in place. The new hybrid plasmid could then be inserted into live bacteria.
After the Genentech scientists successfully created bacteria with copies of the insulin gene, they confirmed that the microbes could produce human insulin in sufficient quantities in a fermentation tank like this one. Then the genetically modified bacteria were passed off to researchers at Eli Lilly, who began producing it in commercial quantities for sale. Voila: synthetic human insulin.
Of course, the state of biotechnology continued to evolve in the years after Humulin debuted, and the museum has collected notable items from that time as well. One is a prototype of a gene gun, developed by scientists at Cornell University in the mid-1980s.
The device makes it easier for scientists to introduce foreign genes into plant cells, by coating tiny metal particles in DNA and firing them at plant cells, forcing a small percentage of the genetic materials to penetrate into the cells’ nuclei and enter their genomes. The original gene gun prototype used a modified air pistol as a firing mechanism, and the technique proved successful when it modified onion cells, chosen for their relatively large size.
Another subsequent innovation ushered in the age of biotechnology in earnest: polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a chemical reaction developed in 1983 by biochemist Kary Mullis that allowed scientists to automatically multiply a DNA sample into greater quantities with significantly less manual work. The first prototype PCR machine, or thermal cycler, was based on researchers’ knowledge of how enzymes like DNA polymerase (which synthesizes DNA from smaller building blocks) functioned at various temperatures. It relied on cycles of heating and cooling to rapidly generate large amounts of DNA from a small sample.
“The Birth of Biotech” is on display on the ground floor of the American History Museum through April 2014.
October 9, 2013
As we reach day nine of the federal shutdown, it’s widely known that all 19 of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums are closed to the public due to the furloughs of all non-essential federal employees.
What’s less often discussed, though, is the fact that the Smithsonian is also an international research organization that employs hundreds of scientists—and consequently, the shutdown has impacted dozens of scientific projects across the U.S. and in far-flung locations around the world. Interrupting this work for even a short-term period, scientists say, can have lasting effects down the road, as in many cases, projects may have to be started anew due to gaps in data.
Because of the furloughs, many researchers and other personnel are unreachable (some may even face penalties for merely checking their e-mail), so collecting information is difficult. But here’s a partial list of Smithsonian research projects interrupted by the ongoing shutdown:
Nick Pyenson of the Natural History Museum has conducted fieldwork on every continent except Antarctica, excavating ancient fossils to understand the evolution of modern marine mammals. As part of his team’s current project, in Chile, they’re 3D scanning a particularly rich site that includes whale, penguin and seal fossils so scientists worldwide can study the digital data.
But last week, that work was abruptly halted. “The Smithsonian is closed, due to a federal government #shutdown. All Pyenson Lab social media, including coverage of the ongoing joint UChile expedition, will be suspended starting 12 pm EST (noon) today (1 Oct),” Pyenson wrote on Facebook. “Also, all federally funded Smithsonian employees are forbidden, under penalty of a $5,000.00 fine and up to 2 years in a federal prison, from logging into their SI email accounts. I will be out of contact until the federal government reopens.”
In 2011, Pyenson’s crew discovered a set of ancient whale fossils in the path of the Pan-American Highway and excavated them just in time. There might not be any looming highway projects currently, but leaving these precious fossils exposed to the elements still poses an enormous risk to their scientific value.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which partners with Harvard to operate and analyze data from dozens of astronomical telescopes, located both on the ground and in space, has managed to keep most of its facilities operating thus far. “You have to shutter federal buildings, but some of these aren’t technically federal buildings,” says David Aguilar, an SAO spokesman, noting that many telescopes, such as those at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona, are shared with local universities and are still staffed by skeleton crews comprised mostly of non-federal employees.
Many SAO researchers, though, depend on data that comes from a range of non-Smithsonian telescopes that have already been shut down. This group includes radio astronomer Mark Reid, who conducts research with the Very Long Baseline Array, a group of telescopes operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory that stretches all the way from Hawaii to New England and was closed last week. “This is really bad,” he told Science. “If they don’t operate the telescopes, it could mean a year’s worth of data becomes useless.”
At the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and various research sites around the world, staff has been stripped down to the minimum level necessary to care for animals—and that means all of the research into how these animals behave and how their bodies function has been shut down.
“All of the scientists, with very few exceptions, have been furloughed,” says Steve Monfort, director of the SCBI. “So everything is shut down. All of our labs are closed, and dozens of projects have been put on hold.” This includes the Zoo’s endocrinology lab (which provides crucial services to dozens of zoos across the country to help them breed elephants and other animals) and the genetics lab (which analyzes biodiversity to sustain severely endangered species on the brink of extinction). “We’re pretty much dead in the water, as far as ongoing science work,” he says.
Additionally, some of these projects are conducted in some 35 different countries annually, so travel arrangements and international collaborations—such as a trip to China to study pandas and a Zoo team’s research into emerging infectious animal diseases in Uganda—have been delayed or cancelled.
“What the public sees when we put on displays is only the tip of the iceberg,” says David Ward, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, which opened the (briefly) acclaimed exhibition “Dancing the Dream” the day before the shutdown. “There’s a tremendous amount of day-to-day work and research necessary to keep everything going, and we can’t do it right now. It’s very frustrating.”
Apart from designing exhibitions—a whole host of which will likely be delayed in opening, including the Sackler Museum’s exhibit on yoga in historic Asian art, the Hirshhorn’s “Damage Control,” a much-anticipated exhibition on the theme of destruction in contemporary at, and the American Art Museum’s “Our America” exhibition on Latino art—curators conduct research to expand knowledge in their fields. This work, too, has been interrupted by the shutdown.
Kristopher Helgen, the Natural History Museum curator and biologist who announced the discovery of the olinguito species to great fanfare in August, announced on Twitter today that he “had to turn away mammalogists from Oz, NZ, S Africa, Brazil, etc. Long way to come to find the collections closed.”
Because the majority of Smithsonian researchers and curators are furloughed and out of contact, what we currently know about interrupted science is only a small measure of the total effects of the shutdown. “I don’t have much information because, scientists are largely furloughed and silent,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Natural History Museum. “The real impact of this will emerge once the lights are back on.”
June 27, 2013
When editor Arthur Brisbane first observed the Wizard, the man sworn to be greater an inventor than Edison himself, Brisbane was as impressed by what he saw as what he had heard. The Wizard, otherwise known as Nikola Tesla, had already earned a reputation for his daring experiments by the time the two met at a restaurant in Manhattan in 1894. His most shocking performance had been in an effort to demonstrate how safe his alternating currents were when Tesla allowed 250,000-volt shocks to course through his body before a disbelieving public. Noting his slim frame and tall stature, Brisbane noted, “He has big hands. Many able men do–Lincoln is one instance.” Better still were his even more prominent thumbs, after all, “the thumb is the intellectual part of the hand.” Little of Tesla was left unremarked upon, including his pale eyes, which Tesla told Brisbane had once been darker but through years of mental concentration, Tesla had lightened at his will.
“In writing about Tesla,” explains W. Bernard Carlson, author of a new biography on the inventor, “one must navigate between unfair criticism and excessive enthusiasm.” In his new book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Carlson examines Tesla’s many achievements and his tumultuous life that earned him the reputation of mad scientist.
In recent years, Tesla has come back into vogue. A Drunk History episode had John C. Reilly portray him as a man constantly frustrated and eclipsed by bigger names. The flashiest of futurist car companies, Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, borrowed the inventor’s name for its high-tech models. He’s even getting his own opera, created by Jim Jarmusch and commissioned by Dartmouth College. When Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal published a comic titled “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived,” Forbes came to the defense of Thomas Edison–slammed by Inman as a CEO, rather than a geek–and fueled a debate that is still going strong. Inman found plenty of pro-Tesla allies and helped crowd-fund the purchase of Tesla’s Long Island laboratory by the non-profit Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe group, with plans to turn it into a museum.
Born to Serbian parents in 1856 on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian empire in what is today Croatia, Tesla showed an early interest in math and mechanics. After surviving a bout of cholera, he enrolled in a polytechnic school in Austria, where he instantly stood out for his achievements. But the success was short-lived. He developed a gambling problem, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown, eventually moving to Budapest to work at a telegraph company. After working at Thomas Edison’s company in France, Tesla relocated to New York City to work more closely with Edison. He arrived in the United States with just four cents in his pocket. Once in New York, Tesla took up the challenge of improving Edison’s direct current motors and generators but received none of the $50,000 Edison had promised him to do so. Edison claimed it was a joke and gave him a slight raise instead. Tesla quit and formed his own company.
He would go on to earn some 300 patents around the world, help cement the technologies that formed modern AC electricity as well as radio and television. He experimented with what he called “atmospheric electricity” and claimed he invented a particle-beam weapon at one of his annual birthday celebrations. His genius also had a dark side, as Matt Novak writes for Paleofture:
Like any man, Tesla was far from perfect and sometimes had very warped ideas about how the world should operate. One of Tesla’s most disturbing ideas was his belief in using eugenics to purify the human race. In the 1930s, Tesla expressed his belief that the forced sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill — which was occurring in some European countries (most disturbingly Nazi Germany) and in many states in the U.S. — wasn’t going far enough.
As a celebrity scientist, his enigmatic personality often received and receives still more attention than his many inventions and the processes behind them. Carlson’s book seeks to correct this with a technical breakdown of Tesla’s most notable achievements. “It’s all too easy to associate invention with imponderables such as genius, mystery, and luck,” writes Carlson. “In contrast, I view invention as a process that we can analyze and understand.”
Explaining the method himself, Tesla told a crowd gathered for his Edison Medal award ceremony in 1917:
I do not rush into constructive work. When I get an idea, I start right away to build it up in my mind. I change the structure, I make improvements, I experiment, I run the device in my mind. It is absolutely the same to me whether I operate my turbine in thought or test it actually in my shop. It makes no difference, the results are the same. In this way, you see, I can rapidly develop and perfect an invention, without touching anything.
Carlson points out that this approach is quite different from that of Thomas Edison, who was known to want either the plans or the device in front of him to manipulate. To create a portrait of an inventor and his inventions, Carlson relies on schematics, letters and original documents from Tesla’s life to map out his creativity. A former fellow at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, Carlson also called upon resources in the National Museum of American History’s collections to complete his research.
Though many of Tesla’s creations were destroyed in a lab fire in 1895, the American History museum still has a small collection of valuable items, including four motors–two of which are currently on display–that rely on Tesla’s alternating current, a generator and nameplate from the 1895 Niagara Falls hydroelectric power station and a recently acquired stock share from Tesla’s failed Electric Light and Manufacturing Company made out to Robert Lane, the company’s treasurer. Tesla received his own stock shares when the company decided to fire him and move away from invention and into the utilities business.
“It was a very tumultuous industry,” explains Carlson. Companies struggled to figure out how to make electricity profitable, particularly with inadequate means of measuring consumption. Wall Street bankers were uninterested in the Tesla’s idea of wireless power because they could see no way to commodify it. But Tesla recognized that the money would come from the receivers, rather than the sale of the power. When his own company cut him loose, Tesla was devastated.
“He arrives in America in 1884 and this happens within basically two years of his arrival, so Tesla’s heartbroken and he doesn’t know what to do,” explains Carlson, “He basically drifts and winds up digging ditches in downtown Manhattan.”
But in what would prove to be just one of many twists of fate, Tesla’s foreman at the Western Union Telegraph Company showed an interest in the patents Tesla was hard at work on each night and introduced him to a higher-up looking to invest in new inventors. “That’s how he gets the business partners that lead to great success with the motors,” explains Carlson.
Where Edison was an adept businessman, Tesla was less so. In 1888, when Tesla is hired as a consultant at Westinghouse Electric, he finds the support of George Westinghouse.
“The relationship between Tesla, the imaginative inventor and Westinghouse, the entrepreneur and capitalist, is a really good fit,” says Hal Wallace, curator of electricity at the National Museum of American History. Westinghouse bought the patents for Tesla’s polyphase AC motors and agreed to pay him $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold. Later, when Westinghouse was at the brink of demise after a costly battle for market share, Tesla tore up the contract, sacrificing his plentiful royalties so the patents would remain with Westinghouse.
Both in business and in science, Tesla proved a maverick. But Carlson cautions that this should not dissuade people from studying how exactly he came to his inventions. “Tesla always claimed that he could think through the entire invention in his head and then go and build it and it would work first time, every time,” says Carlson.
Carlson, who spent time with the American History Museum’s Kenneth Swezey Papers, which include letters, photographs and patent testimony, found that even Tesla’s genius can be analyzed and taught to future generations. “There are aspects of the creative process that remain true to this day,” says Carlson. “The number of parallels between Tesla, and say Steve Jobs, are significant and significant enough to say there are indeed patterns and things that we can learn from understanding the creative mind of somebody like Nikola Tesla.”
May 21, 2013
The National Air and Space Museum honored the late pioneer astronaut Sally Ride recently with a panel discussion entitled “Sally Ride: How Her Historic Space Mission Opened Doors for Women in Science.”
Ride, who became the first American woman in space aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, was an outspoken advocate for women scientists and improved science education. Her highly decorated career included two trips and more than 343 hours in space, work at NASA’s headquarters, positions on the committees that investigated the Columbia and Challenger disasters and a professorship at the University of California, San Diego. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which develops science programs, books and festivals for fourth through eighth grade classrooms.
The panel was broadcasted live on NASA TV from the museum’s “Moving Beyond Earth” gallery and moderated by Tom Costello of NBC News. It featured space and science education luminaries Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center; Rene McCormick, director of Standards and Quality at the National Math and Science Initiative; Linda Billings, professor at George Washington University; Dan Vergano, USA Today science writer; and Margaret Weitekamp, the museum’s curator of space history.
The group reflected on Ride’s game-changing influence in a traditionally male-dominated field and her progress in promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, as well as some of the hurdles America still must overcome to ensure gender equality in the sciences, such as lingering cultural stereotypes that prevent women from pursuing STEM careers and a lack of mentors to encourage them. A number of studies in recent years have shown that women still remain significantly underrepresented in STEM careers, particularly at higher levels, so the panel focused on the steps that must be taken to interest girls in science at a young age and to retain this interest as they prepare to enter the workforce.
“I think a lot of it is just trying to educate girls on what careers are like in those fields,” says Ochoa, an astronaut herself who followed in Ride’s footsteps as a PhD student at Stanford and believed in the possibility of being an astronaut because of her. “A lot of girls think it’s very much a solitary career. And while there are women scientists and engineers who may work alone in labs, it’s much more common that it’s more of a team effort.”
Ride had such an influence, Ochoa says, because she insisted on consulting her female colleagues when she had to make decisions about accommodating women in space travel instead of answering on her own, giving women a collective voice in the industry. Also, says Ochoa, “She did such a great job on her mission that whether or not women should be assigned to flights was no longer a question. There were still a lot of people who didn’t want to see women flying in space at the time, but they couldn’t point to any good reasons after her flight.”
In the panel’s audience was Tam O’Shaughnessy, Sally Ride Science’s chief operating officer and Ride’s life partner for more than 25 years. O’Shaughnessy launched the science education program with Ride and three other friends, and the group now is expanding their educational outreach by digitizing the books and trainings they have created to make the materials available online. Ride may be gone, O’Shaughnessy says, but “she’s still part of the company. She was our leader for 12 years, and her vision is part of our DNA now.”
Ride died at 61 last July from pancreatic cancer. Earlier this year, the Space Foundation posthumously awarded her its highest honor, the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award.
March 27, 2013
Though you might not know it judging from the forecast most places, spring has indeed arrived. And despite the unpredictable D.C. weather, the snow, sleet, cold rain and wind hasn’t kept the tourists away. Crowds are gathering in the nation’s capital for the first glimpses of the cherry blossoms. For those of you interested in making the most of your visit, the editors over here have released two new spring-themed tours to help showcase the seasonal delights both inside and outside along the Mall.
The Gardens tour will take you to our many well-maintained plots around the Mall to see more than just a few pink blooms by the Tidal Basin, including heirloom plants, geometric splendors reminiscent of the grandest of European gardens and even a Victory Garden.Meanwhile, our Spring Fling tour will take you inside to show off the riches of the Smithsonian’s arts and sciences collection and celebrate the season with baseball legends, a tree you can wish on, bouquets in paint and even a spring from space.
Head here to download the visitor’s app and get your step-by-step directions, custom postcard feature and greatest hits from the museums.