Foul Weather, Fond Memories anf Flies
CHAPTER 43 An Exceptionally Useful Insect
This week, with temps in the teens and twenties, I saw three robins! Was this a sign of an imminent spring or was it a sign of stupid birds coming north just as another arctic freeze was about to hit New Jersey? As I'm sure was the case for most of my readers in the USA, February was a very stressful month. The repeated bouts of snow and/or ice (and drought followed by the excessive rain in the West) have made this the worst winter in the more than 60 years I've lived in New Jersey. We've had severe weather events, such as hurricanes Sandy and Irene, a devastating October snowstorm and various blizzards but, typically, these have been singular events, not one after another, building up snow and ice over periods of many weeks. I've been waking up in the wee hours of the morning worrying about such things as power failures, whether or not the sundeck over our porch is going to collapse under the weight of the snow and ice, or, with brief warming periods, is our sump pump blocked by the snow and will our basement flood?
Thankfully, as far as I know, our worst damage has been the loss of a gutter or two due to ice dams and the huge amounts of snow on our roofs has largely melted away without sliding onto our deck. And our sump pump managed to pump water out onto our driveway. However, in the mall where I walk in the mornings, part of a parking deck did collapse, fortunately at 5 AM and nobody was injured. A local CVS drugstore also had a roof collapse. I noted contractors, in bitter cold, replacing a roof on a house a couple blocks from our place. And who knows how many people have fallen on the ice and ended up in the ER in our local hospital? I think how happy Fred, our former mail carrier, must be that he retired on January 1st of this year, after having fallen on the ice up the street from us just a couple weeks earlier.
Well, enough about weather. I closed last month's column with some recollections of encounters of me or my wife with various political figures. The recent death of Joan Mondale reminded me that I had skipped her husband, Walter Mondale. When he was running for president against Ronald Reagan, he stopped briefly at Bell Labs and gave a short speech in our cafeteria/reception area. What I recall is that someone presented him with a large disc of silicon that had been polished and processed in our device area. I don't know how many transistors were on that disc but Walter took the disc and tossed it to an aide who, fortunately, caught it. Otherwise it would have fallen to the floor and broken into many pieces. Mondale lost my vote right there and I cast my first of two votes for the Gipper. Later, Bill Clinton appointed Mondale Ambassador to Japan. I should mention that only a week or so after his wife's death, Mondale had heart surgery and apparently is doing well.
The death of another former ambassador, Shirley Temple Black, also brought back memories. Shirley Temple was born just a few months after I was born and, though I never saw her in person, I certainly grew up enthralled by her delightful performances on the silver screen. Would that some of our young stars today follow her example of behavior and public service.
There was another death last month that truly brought back memories - the passing of Ralph Kiner. It was 1946 when, at age 18, I entered graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. I was a huge baseball fan and was delighted to find that Forbes Field was essentially across the street from Pitt's main building, the Cathedral of Learning. Kiner was another newcomer to Pittsburgh, in his first year in the Big Leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same year, Bing Crosby became a part owner of the Pirates. (The only time I saw Bing was when he appeared at one of the games I attended. Also, the only time I saw Bob Hope, who appeared in many movies with Crosby, was when Hope put on a show at the hockey arena in Pittsburgh.)
The next year, 1947, Hank Greenberg was playing his last year in baseball there, after a Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Tigers. For Greenberg, they put in a fence in front of the brick wall in left field and moved the bullpen there from foul territory. This shortened the distance needed to hit a homerun by some 30 feet, an obvious ploy to take advantage of Greenberg's pull hitting prowess and more homeruns for the home team. The newly constructed area was known as Greenberg Gardens. Greenberg recognized Kiner's potential and worked with him to develop his slugging ability. In 1946, Kiner hit 23 homeruns, while in 1947, under Greenberg's wing, hit 51! In 1949, I saw a fair number of Kiner's lifetime-high 54 homeruns, many of which cleared that original brick wall, ignoring Greenberg Gardens, which was to become known as Kiner's Korner. Later, when Kiner was traded, the fence was taken down and the bullpen moved back to its original location.
During my four years at Pitt I went to well over a hundred games, around 40 one year, and most of the time I sat in the bleachers along the left field foul line, where the admission price was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 cents, maybe a dollar! As I recall, there were no seats in the bleachers, just plank type seating typical of most football stadiums. One time, I went to four doubleheaders in about a week! I felt like I was sitting down for a week after that. Kiner played left field and the bleachers were the place to be to watch his fielding activities as well as his homers going over the wall or into the bullpen. I'm wondering if many of my multitude of skin lesions/cancers were due to my exposure to the sun sitting those many hours in those exposed bleachers.
We in the New York metropolitan area, of course, enjoyed Kiner's broadcasting of the Mets games starting at the beginning in 1962. Kiner's Korner moved from Pittsburgh to New York as a segment following the game in which Kiner typically interviewed a player and reflected on baseball matters. Sitting in those left field bleachers, I noted that Kiner liked to talk and I often saw him chatting with the bullpen crew. In fact, I once saw him miss two pitches because he was facing the bullpen talking while the pitches were thrown. Fortunately, there wasn't a ball hit to left field on those pitches. In a recent Bar Chat (see archives, February 10, 2014 Bar Chat), Brian Trumbore covers Kiner's career in great detail if you want to read more about this baseball icon. He also covers the wonderful night we spent celebrating Ralph Kiner night at Shea Stadium, which, as with Forbes Field, no longer exists.
Well, I really should include some science in this column. With all the stress of this foul weather, I'm not up to anything that requires deep thinking. So, something about insects seems in order. I've talked about Monarch butterflies being in trouble, as witnessed by the vastly reduced number that arrived down in Mexico this past season. Let's consider Drosophila melanogaster, those tiny little fruit flies that show up when you leave a rotting piece of fruit open to the atmosphere. On the February 16 broadcast of my favorite TV program, "Sunday Morning" with Charles Osgood, there was a segment in which Susan Spencer interviewed a patient with a rare and deadly disease called Medullary Thyroid Cancer. The patient was diagnosed back in 2001 and managed to survive on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs with various types of medical treatments.
Now, the patient is trying a new approach with Ross Cagan, a fruit fly geneticist, not a medical doctor. Cagan has modified the genetics of a fruit fly to have the same disease as the patient. By creating a bunch of these modified fruit flies, Cagan and colleagues can then try all manner of drugs and drug cocktails to try to cure the afflicted fruit flies. If they succeed, the next thing is to try the same drug(s) to treat the patient. Well, Cagan and colleagues have found a drug cocktail that cured the fruit fly and the patient is now being treated with this cocktail. Early signs are promising.
One reads a lot these days about personalized treatment of diseases by looking at a patient's DNA to find specific genes that predispose patients to the particular disease, such as the BRCA gene for breast cancer. It's going to be a long road before such approaches are common and successful but maybe the fruit fly will play an important role in the quest? Incidentally, on the program Susan Spencer remarked that the fruit fly is barely bigger than the period at the end of a sentence. According to Wikipedia, the size of a fruit fly, is around 2.5 millimeters or about a tenth of an inch, bigger than the periods that I'm familiar with.
On Googling fruit flies, I also found that work is going on with using fruit flies to smell cancer! For example, Martin Strauch and a host of co-authors published a paper in a recent issue of the journal Nature in which they use fluorescent protein in the antennae of fruit flies. The antennae light up when the flies are exposed to the odors of various types of breast cancer. We've all heard tales of dogs being able to detect cancer patients in hospitals and it appears that insects such as bees, and fruit flies, also possess that ability.
I thought I was finished with fruit flies and medical matters but, in the January 2014 issue of Scientific American, I found an article by Sarah Fecht titled "Taking the Hit". We hear and read a lot these days about traumatic brain injury, notably in connection with concussions in NFL football players and with soldiers subject to explosions of IEDs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, some forty years ago a geneticist, Barry Ganetzky, happened to snap a vial containing a bunch of fruit flies against his palm of his hand and noticed that all the flies were lying on their sides bottom of the vial, knocked out. Now, decades later, Ganetzky and his coworkers are trying to see if the fruit fly can shed light on brain injuries.
Such injuries can occur when the brain sloshes against the inner wall of the skull on impact. The fruit fly has this tiny brain, also cushioned by liquid and encased in a hard shell of its exoskeleton. Ganetzky and his colleagues are now repeating that 40-year-old experiment of loading vials with fruit flies and banging the vials against padded surfaces. Sure, enough, the flies are suffering some of the same symptoms of injury that humans suffer and the hope is that the fruit fly studies may result in better understanding of brain injuries and possible biomarkers in the blood to detect such injuries. Ideally, of course, such studies might lead to treatments that would help brain injured patients.
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about April 1, 2014.
Allen F. Bortrum