(A scientist’s – very loose – play on Ode to the West Wind by P.B Shelley. Shelley, I can only apologize.)
By Hema Manjunath
A GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Molecular biologists are scientists who study the unique molecules that make up life forms on Earth.
DNA, is one such molecule. As are RNA and proteins.
A technique that molecular biologists use to detect and ‘see’ proteins is called a Western blot.
The procedure is a little involved, but the bare bones of it is this: you break open cells to get the proteins, arrange all the proteins from heaviest to lightest on a piece of paper (spread them out, as it were) and then highlight the protein you’re interested in. If you’ve done it all right, your protein will be a little black mark on an image with a white background. You can find out whether your protein is there or not, whether there’s more of it than normal or not enough and a good number of other things.
Mechanism is a beautiful word in science-speak. It is what scientists are almost always chasing. It is often the most frustrating, most elusive, most maddeningly-interesting part of a research project.
Here’s the thing – biologists don’t want to tell you that leaves are green. They want to want to tell you why leaves are green and what that means to a plant. They want to find and tell you a story – they want mechanism. A discovery is just the beginning of that story.
So, next time you talk to a scientist, don’t ask them what they found. Ask them about ‘the mechanism’. They’ll probably be surprised that you asked, but they’ll appreciate it and be really excited to tell you how much of the story they have so far.
Tl;dr version: Sciences have a thing for puns.
L;r version: This technique was named the ‘Western blot’ in 1981 by W. N Burnette for an unconventional, ‘punny’ reason.
At the time, a similar technique that was used to detect DNA was called a ‘Southern blot’, after the man who invented it – Edwin Southern. Burnette heroically gave up the chance for personal fame (Burnette blot, anyone?) and decided to make a pun for the ages by choosing another direction for this technique to detect proteins. And thus was born the ‘Western blot’.
The tradition caught on and years later, when a similar technique was developed to detect RNA, it was christened the ‘Northern blot’.