Medicine and Physiology Nobel nabbed by a Brit and a Japanese (and a digression on birds)

October 8, 2012 • 11:50 am

I’m just back from a national park in eastern Portugal, where it’s remote, unpopulated, and eerily beautiful. I saw the national bird of Portugal, the azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus) as well as a group of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus). The vulture breeds only on vertical rocky cliffs, and we spotted a group of four—or rather my companion Martim did—by the streaks of white vulture droppings on the rock face.

The magpie is a biogeographical oddity: it has a disjunct distribution, with one population of the species in Portugal and western Spain, and the other in eastern Asia (Japan, Korea, etc.) This is not due to human introduction, but must be the remnant of an ancient continuous distribution.  (There’s some controversy over whether they’re the same species, but they’re clearly sister groups.)

Here are two pictures I took: vultures on the rocks and one in flight:

Whoops, but I digress! The Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology was just awarded to two men: the Englishman Sir John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese (don’t you love how international science is?).  Their work showed that even after adult cells mature they retain the genetic capacity to be “totipotent,” i.e., to transform into other types of cells.

The Guardian report  (which you should read for more information) notes that Gurdon didn’t start out showing a lot of promise:

According to his Eton schoolmaster, the 15-year-old Gurdon did not stand out as a potential scientist. Writing in 2006, Gurdon quoted a school report as saying: “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts, he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

Yamanaka responded modestly, as a scientist should:

Responding to the prize announcement, Yamanaka said: “I don’t know how I am going to celebrate yet. I think I just need a beer.”

And here’s an azure-winged magpie (related to crows, of course); not my picture, but Neil’s (see BirdForum page for information):

Here’s its bizarre distribution:

20 thoughts on “Medicine and Physiology Nobel nabbed by a Brit and a Japanese (and a digression on birds)

  1. The pluripotent nature of adult cells raises some fascinating philosophical conundrums for religionists who oppose reproductive rights on the theory that an individual’s life begins at conception.

    Specifically, each and every cell in your body has every bit as much potential to develop into a full-fledged human as a fertilized ovum does; it just needs a bit more work. But so what? So do ova fertilized in a petri dish, and the extra work isn’t that much different.

    So, do clones have souls? If so, at what point does Jesus infest the fetus with a soul? There’s no fertilization, of course.

    Similarly, what about identical twins? Do they share a single soul? Does one get the original soul? What of the other — is it soulless, or does Jesus give it a handy spare at the moment of division?

    And let’s not forget the earth-shattering work of Dr. Venter. You can download his complete genome, and he’s also demonstrated that, in principle, it should be possible to turn that genome into a viable ovum. Does each copy of Dr. Venter’s genome have a soul? Is it murder to erase such a copy, torture to modify it?

    Be sure to have some popcorn handy before asking these questions of a Christian. You’ll get some quite spectacular fireworks to accompany the cranial assplosion!



      1. Excellent point!

        One can easily envision various experiments that could determine if the soul is something that resides at the cellular or the nuclear level.

        If the soul is cellular, that opens up all sorts of exciting research opportunities, especially for infertility treatments.

        Of course, if the soul is nuclear, then we’re left with wondering how it’s distinct from DNA — and, obviously, all those sticky theological problems remain.



      2. What did you have in mind, Michael? Putting the nucleus from some other cell into a red blood cell?

        RBCs are lacking more than a nucleus. They don’t have organelles such as mitochondria. This layman suspects that would make them poor targets for nuclear transfer.

  2. I was in extreme eastern Spain (Barcelona, technically in Catalunya NOT Spain) a few months ago, and saw a different magpie, Pica pica (?), which was very common. Maybe this magpie occupies the area between the two pockets of Azure-winged Magpies, and competitively excludes it?

      1. And then Pica pica has a disjunct range too. (OK, I know it’s disputed that European and western N American populations are the same species.)

      2. That is extraordinary – can we be sure it is not an exotic introduction in Iberia, maybe in mediaeval times? Any genetic evidence of a founder effect? Otherwise what would have stopped it living in the space in between? Competition with a rival species; climate changes (Ice Age); hunting; disease?

    1. It really is a separate species – the literature is ahead of the decision making: Synchronic east–west divergence in azure-winged magpies (Cyanopica cyanus) and magpies (Pica pica) A. Kryukov1 et al
      Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research
      Volume 42, Issue 4, pages 342–351, November 2004
      “the sequence data imply an east–west differentiation, probably caused by long lasting isolation that may have even started in the Pliocene or repeated expansions/restrictions of distribution ranges during the Pleistocene.”

  3. A joke from the Scarecrow Festival last weekend in a village near me:

    Q: Why did the scarecrow win the Nobel prize?

    A: Because he was out standing in his field.

    I thank you.

  4. Besides the Nobel Prize announcement, leading Swedish newspapers interviews a visiting Dawkins. The article is not without references to the usual US media image of him, but is rather positive. Few creationist commenters and many lauding Dawkins.

    The more conservative newspaper seems to have avoided him this time. But it had a terrible opinion piece on how ‘Dawkin’s followers needs humility’ by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein when Dawkins visited in early September. And also a belief-in-belief column on the necessity of religion by Paulina Neuding when Dawkins visited The Swedish Humanist Association in late September.

    I know, terribly OT here, but today was a science win day in Sweden.

    1. Oops, I forgot: Dawkin’s interview was 1st page stuff. First time I’ve seen that, I believe.

    2. Does Sveriges TV still broadcast live from the Nobel banquet? If so, and it also streams, could you send a link to that when the time comes?

  5. It’s funny, I remember that a long while ago I asked one of these people that believe that an individual begins at the moment of conception with the zygote, what if you take a mature cell from any part of the body and regress it to a zygote state, would that cell be considered a potential human being?, at the time we were not aware of any study on this line to have arguments for a debate. Now, a Nobel prize its awarded.

    But aside from these confusing and troublesome discussions on ethics, this is an awesome discovery for the biological sciences!

    1. It certainly should make religious nutters think – if every CELL is sacred, or a potential human being! Good point…

  6. That is a pretty strange distribution! Are there (m)any other species with similarly bizarre distributions? How long have the two magpie populations been in isolation from each other?

    1. The bizarre thing about the distribution in that map is that these magpie somehow seem to know precisely where the national borders of China and Mongolia are :p ;).

  7. Cyanopica cyanus –
    I have read in several ornithological papers that it is believed the Azure-winged Magpie was indeed introduced to the Iberian Peninsular by early merchant trade from the Far East.

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