Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

Decoys and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)

It will take a detour through history to understand how lung cells try to defeat MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph. Aureus), a very nasty bug.

Back in 1983 President Reagan proposed building an antiMissile defense system, which would shoot down Russian InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) aimed at us.  Almost every scientist of note said it was impossible technically, because even if you could shoot down one (which they didn’t think you could), the Russians would send multiple decoy ICBMs without warheads.  It was an enormously expensive project and one the Russians had no hope of matching.  People still argue whether their attempt to match the US caused the Russians  to collapse — https://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/who-won-cold-war1.htm — although collapse they did being overextended in Afghanistan (as we’ve been for 20 years).

But that’s exactly what A549 cells (derived from lung epithelium) do to fake out MRSA according to Nature vol. 579 pp. 260 – 264 ’20.  One of the reasons MRSA is so nasty is that it secretes a protein (alpha toxin) which forms holes in cells it binds to.  Well alpha toxin has a target it must bind to cause trouble, otherwise it would form holes in everything including itself.  The target is an enzyme on the surface of the cell called ADAM10, which is a protease found on the cell membrane.

You may not have thought of it, but when you diet, your cells eat themselves, rather than just sloughing of the cells in the fat you don’t like (love handles, double chin etc. etc.).  Wouldn’t that be nice though.  The process is called autophagy, in which membranes appear, surround small bits of each cell and them fuse with the lysosome, which breaks the contents down into metabolically useful material (sugars, fats, amino acids).  Some 41 different proteins are involved called ATG’s (for AuTophagy Gene).

But the autophagy genes can also be used to secrete stuff to the outside of the cell, and in fact that’s how the lung cells beat MRSA, they secrete zillions of little vesicles called exosomes (an entirely interesting newly discovered story, to be covered at another time), containing the target of alpha toxin — ADAM10.  Clever no?  The authors were so excited they invented a new word for it the defensosome. The ATG involved is called ATG16L1.  Previously the function of ATG16L1 appeared well defined, conjugating phosphatidylethanolamine to LC3, a ubiquitinLike molecule to form the autophagosome.  That’s probably nomenclature overload, but it’s worthwhile getting an appreciation of the complicated things going on inside our cells.


Hitler’s gifts (and Russia’s gift)

In the summer of 1984 Barack Obama was at Harvard Law, his future wife was a Princeton undergraduate, and Edward Frenkel a 16 year old mathematical prodigy was being examined for admission to Moscow State University. He didn’t get in because he was Jewish. His blow by blow description of the 5 hour exam on pp. 28 – 38 of his book “Love & Math” is as painful to read as it must have been for him to write.

A year earlier the left in Europe had mobilized against the placement of Pershing missiles in Europe by president Reagan, already known there as a crude and witless former actor, but, unfortunately possessed of nuclear weapons. Tens of thousands marched. He had even called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire that year. Leftists the world over were outraged. How unsophisticated to even admit the possibility of evil. Articles such as “Reagan’s image in Europe does not help Allies in deploying American missiles” appeared in the liberal press.

The hatred of America is nothing new for the left.

Reset the clock to ’60 – ’62 when I was a grad student in the Harvard Chemistry department. The best place to meet women was the International house. It had a piano, and a Polish guy who played Chopin better than I did. It had a ping pong table, and another Polish guy who beat me regularly. The zeitgeist at Harvard back then, was that America was rather crude (the Ugly American was quite popular), boorish and unappreciative of the arts, culture etc. etc.

One woman I met was going on and on about this, particularly the condition of the artist in America, and how much better things were in Europe. I brought up Solzhenitzen, and the imprisonment of dissidents over there. Without missing a beat, she replied that this just showed how important the Russian government thought writers and artists were. This was long before Vietnam.

It was definitely a Saul on the road to Damascus moment for me. When the left began spelling America, Amerika in the 60s and 70s, I just ignored it.

Fast forward to this fall, and the Nobels. The 7th Chemistry Nobel bestowed on a department member when I was there went to Marty Karplus. The others were Woodward, Corey, Lipscomb, Gilbert, Hoffman, Bloch. While Bill Lipscomb was a Kentucky gentleman to a T (and a great guy), Hoffman spent World War II hiding out in an attic, his father being in a concentration camp (guess why). Konrad Bloch (who looked as teutonic as they come) also got out of Europe due to his birth. Lastly Karplus got out of Euruope as a child for the same reason. Don Voet, a fellow grad student, whose parents got out of Europe for (I’ll make you guess), used to say that the Universal Scientific Language was — broken English.

So 3/7 of the Harvard Chemistry Nobels are Hitler and Europe’s gifts to America.

Russia, not to be outdone, gave us Frenkel. Harvard recognized his talent, and made him a visiting professorship at age 21, later enrolling him in grad school so he could get a PhD. He’s now a Stanford prof.

So the next time, someone touts the “European model” of anything, ask them about Kosovo, or any of this.

Those of you in training should consider the following. You really won’t know how good what you are getting really is until 50 years or so have passed. That’s not to say Harvard Chemistry’s reputation wasn’t very good back then. Schleyer said ‘now you’re going to Mecca’ when he heard I’d gotten in.

Also to be noted, is that all 7 future Nobelists in the early 60s weren’t resting on their laurels, but actively creating them. The Nobels all came later