Sunday, April 14, 2013

Jay Ingram's "Fatal Flaws"

Iconic broadcaster Jay Ingram is one of Canada’s best-known and most popular science personalities. Ingram has hosted both the premier radio science program in Canada, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, and its TV counterpart, Discovery Channel Canada’s Daily Planet. In 2010, Ingram was appointed as a member to the Order of Canada for a lifetime of service in science communication. He has received several awards for his work, including honorary degrees from Carleton University, McGill University, McMaster University, King’s College and the University of Alberta.

A prolific author, Ingram has written 12 books – most recently, Fatal Flaws: How a Misfolded Protein Baffled Scientists and Changed the Way We Look at the Brain – most of which have been best-sellers. His books have been translated into 12 languages.

Since 2005, Ingram has been Chair of the Science Communications Program at the Banff Centre. He is also co-founder of the arts and engineering festival called Beakerhead, beginning in 2013 in Calgary.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Fatal Flaws and reported the following:
Page 99 of Fatal Flaws is an example of the challenges of writing about science, especially science that dwells in dimensions beyond our daily experience. This book is about prions. These disease agents are directly responsible for Mad Cow, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and many others, but also may hold clues to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. No question prions deserve our attention, but they are mere protein molecules. By contrast, the much more elaborate viruses and bacteria, as micro as they are, can be characterized as malevolent presences equipped with genomes evolved to attack and destroy. They have, to stretch the point a little, personalities.

But a molecule? One whose impact on living things is dependent on its shape? Science writers are familiar with the fact that readers often bring little context to the subject, and that is especially true of biochemistry. Proteins are familiar as the ingredients of muscle-building shakes, not as chains of amino acids folded just so, (or in the case of prions, misfolded).

On page 99 I establish some of that context by using the different qualities of two familiar pieces of clothing, a wool sweater and a silk shirt, to illustrate the differences in the fundamental structure of their respective proteins.
Wool and silk are both proteins, but the way they’re put together is so dramatically different at scales of a trillionth of a meter that you can feel it when you hold them in your hands. Wool is largely arranged as helices, coils of amino acids winding around each other and bonded to other coils. These coils can be stretched, sometimes up to twice their natural length, but they will nonetheless spring back when released. On the other hand, they are not all that strong. Silk is a different story: it is extremely strong because it is arranged, not in coils, but in sheets that are extensively cross-linked for reinforcement. Silk doesn’t stretch nearly as much as wool, nor does it have the same elastic response. Pull on a silk fiber, and it will first resist, then break.
Happily, wool and silk are a perfect pair to contrast, because when the prion protein misfolds into its infectious form, it trades in some of its coils for sheets, altering the structure of the protein dramatically and conferring disease-causing properties upon it.
Learn more about the book and author at Jay Ingram's website.

--Marshal Zeringue