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You have probably heard that Governor Palin, in a recent speech contradicted herself within a span of a couple of sentences. So, she said that “Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference.”, then in the next breath dissed that same research: “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” You can see that part here:

This is obviously not making Drosophila researchers happy, especially those who actually use this model animal to study the underlying causes of diseases such as autism. And they are firing back – see this response by UNC researchers: In defense of fruit flies and basic medical research:

Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made reference to fruit fly research in a broad statement about wasteful earmark funding that has “little or nothing to do with the public good.” She specifically mentioned work in Paris, France. (Just Google it.)

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann reported this, and mentioned, specifically, (Drosophila) fruit fly research at the University of North Carolina (“which is not in Paris,” Olbermann noted) that has led to advanced understanding in autism research. (We think you’ll be able to find this easily, too.)

That work, led by neuroscientist Manzoor Bhat, Ph.D., and autism researcher and clinician Joseph Piven, M.D., director of UNC’s Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center.

Their work was published in Neuron in September 2007.

Dr. Bhat and Dr. Piven will have more to say tomorrow (Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008).

For now, here’s a passage from a UNC press release:

“Neurons, or nerve cells, communicate with each other through contact points called synapses. When these connections are damaged, communication breaks down, causing the messages that would normally help our feet push our bike pedals or our mind locate our car keys to fall short.

Now scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine have shown that a protein called neurexin is required for these nerve cell connections to form and function correctly.

The discovery, made in Drosophila fruit flies may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism.

“This finding now gives us the opportunity to see what job neurexin performs within the cell, so that we can gain a better insight into what can go wrong in the nervous system when neurexin function is lost,” said Dr. Manzoor Bhat, associate professor of cell and molecular physiology in the UNC School of Medicine and senior author of the study.

The study, published online Sept. 6, 2007, in the journal Neuron, is the first to successfully demonstrate in a Drosophila model the consequences that mutating this important protein may have on synapses.

The research was supported in part by grants from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Mental Health and funds from the state of North Carolina.”

This study has been highlighted on Keith Olbermann’s show the other day:

More at UNC, a response by a fruitfly researcher, and a criticism of the way Olbermann handled it….

Dr. Manzoor Bhat and Joseph Piven, M.D. have now released the video response – well worth watching:

Update 2: More responses:

Mike the Mad Biologist
Napa Valley Register
Island Of Doubt
The Tree of Life
Washington Post
Myrmecos Blog
KSJ Tracker
Uncontrolled Experiment
Greta Christina’s Blog
Bjoern Brembs
Life v. 3.0
Flags and Lollipops – Network Edition


  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    October 25, 2008

    Glad to see UNC is using Bhat’s neurexin work to defend against such ignorance. Next thing you know, she’ll be claiming that research on quail is inconsequential.

    Interesting to see today’s report that she is pissing off McCain advisors as well:


  2. #2 Coturnix
    October 25, 2008

    Yes, I saw that as well.

    And I am looking forward to tomorrow’s statement by Dr. Bhat and Dr. Piven.

  3. #3 Lucas McCarty
    October 25, 2008

    If one more person describes Autism as a ‘disease’ without explaining how it is so, I’ll press the big red button that begins the invasion of giant robots me and my nerdy friends built.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    October 25, 2008

    Why? Is it not? It is a serious neurological developmental disorder, so calling it a disease is perfectly OK.

  5. #5 The Urban Scientist
    October 25, 2008

    I’m glad for the quick response. McCain/Palin are really sending a message to the scientific/academic community that they are indeed out of touch and have no idea what we do (science and teaching), how we touch others (our students, patients, etc) and the great public impact (health care, attracting/retaining future scientists). Is it really America first with this ticket?

  6. #6 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 26, 2008

    Dude, you gotta be a little more careful. What I provided was not a “criticism of the way Olbermann handled it”. I lauded Olbermann’s handling of the Palin fuck-up without qualification. I criticized Olbermann for something completely different.

    Don’t pull a Laden on us!!

    BTW, Palin is a sick-fuck extreme far-right-wing racist misogynist theocratic secessionist traitor.

  7. #7 mommom
    October 26, 2008

    I just keep waiting for McCain to turn to her and call her a “stupid c**t ,like he did his wife a few years ago.

  8. #8 Abel Pharmboy
    October 26, 2008

    As a fan of both Olbermann and CPP, I think that Comrade PhysioBro’s objection was that Olbermann diluted his excellent message and analysis by subsequently degenerating into his ego battle with Bill O’Reilly. The final two paragraphs of his post speak to this specific point.

    I also have been criticized for calling autism a disease yet, under strict medical criteria and the medical definition of disease, it is. However, the word disease carries a stigma, implying something that needs to be treated, and I can understand why even the DSM-IV classifications of “autism spectrum disorders” or “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)” offend some. An example of such objection is this letter to the editor from the 11 June 2008 issue of New Scientist:

    Autism is not a “mental illness” (17 May, p 34). People with autism or Asperger’s syndrome refer to it as a “condition”. They do not even like the term “disorder”. It is incredibly disrespectful, hurtful and wrong to describe these people as having a mental illness. There is great debate in the world of autism about whether it should be viewed as something society should even be considering “curing”. Many people with autism just want to be allowed to reach their potential and for society to make as much effort to accommodate them as they make to fit in to our strange world. However, it is becoming evident through research that a high percentage of those with autism suffer mental health problems too.

  9. #9 Barn Owl
    October 26, 2008

    I can only imagine how bad it would have been if Palin had latched onto some of the yeast research instead: “Teh evul scientists spend federal research $$$$$ on BEER!!!”

    In my experience, most reasonable people, even those who have little background in biology, can begin to understand how basic disease mechanisms are researched and understood through use of experimental organisms such as yeast, C.elegans, and Drosophila. For dolts like Palin, there’s the flippant response “If yeast, worms, and fruit flies aren’t relevant, would you rather that we used small children? Prisoners, perhaps?”

  10. #10 Nadeen
    October 26, 2008

    Barn Owl, I always cringe when someone jokingly suggests using children and prisoner for scientific research. In the U.S. we are so harsh it could easily be the child and the prisoner are one in the same.

    In other words, please don’t give Palin any (bad) ideas!

  11. #11 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 26, 2008

    As a fan of both Olbermann and CPP, I think that Comrade PhysioBro’s objection was that Olbermann diluted his excellent message and analysis by subsequently degenerating into his ego battle with Bill O’Reilly.

    It’s sort of like when Comrade PhysioProf upbraids Laden for one thing or another. No one else really gives a shit, or wants to hear about it.

  12. #12 Alex
    October 26, 2008

    Of course, you could use students, but once they breed you’ve got to wait 21 years for the results…

  13. #13 Paul Lundgren
    October 26, 2008

    Regarding Comrade PhysioProf’s criticism of Olbermann, all I have to say is this: Countdown without the O’Reilly bashing would be like Dave Letterman without the top 10 lists. It might not be the focus of the entire show, but it’s a draw for those of us who watch.

  14. #14 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 26, 2008

    Paul, point taken.

    Comrade PhysioProf concern-trolled Keith Olbermann! HAHAHAH!

  15. #15 Lucas McCarty
    October 26, 2008

    Neurological development disorder = disease, I’m not seeing the connection.

    I don’t mean to hi-jack the topic, but most Down’s Syndrome charities consider the description of DS as a disease to be disparaging. Dyslexia charities often say the same about Dyslexia. In the UK, the National Autistic Society says it’s inappropriate.

    Only in the US and Canada, where no amount of perjorative and alarming rhetoric about Autistic people is considered too extreme, is disease a perfectly acceptable description for Autism. I’m not sure what it’s like in non-English countries.

  16. #16 Coturnix
    October 26, 2008

    In my language, there is but one word – ‘bolest’ – which means all of the above: disease, disorder, condition. So I do not have the automatic mental model for fine distinctions between the three. I am trying to learn.

  17. #17 Lucas McCarty
    October 26, 2008

    Autism presents measurable and distinct strengths and weaknesses which become more or less pronounced depending on enviroment. Obviously in an enviroment that is presumptively hostile to the concept of Autistic strength, such a thing isn’t likely to be demonstrable.

    I don’t know of any disease which confers any measure of advantage in any form on the individual. So it isn’t the extent of the advantage that matters, only that it is there and present in the majority of those diagnosed. The extent of the actual disadvantage becomes almost irrelevent when determining if a condition is a disease. Autism charities in the US and Canada, which have never or rarely allowed Autistics to participate in key policy-making even if they were able to and interested, find convenience in the two seperate ASD diagnoses of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, even if they are virtually identicle. What they consider a person with Aspergers(even if the actual diagnosis is Autism) is not someone who is able to relate experience relevent to what they consider a person with Autism, so can legitimately be excluded from debate and decisions about themselves. Of course they have little experience of Autistic strength and much experience of Autistic weakness: which do they prefer to draw attention to?

    Thank you for listening. I’m simply trying to raise awareness of how what we all say has eventual consequences for living, thinking and feeling people.

  18. #18 S. Rivlin
    October 26, 2008

    Most importantly at this point in time is to recognize the disaster that this bimbo, Palin, would bring upon US if she somehow manages to enter the While House with that semi-senilic MaCain. Her ignorance and backwardness must be exposed for everyone to see.

  19. #19 Coturnix
    October 26, 2008

    Also, I am aware that she was talking about a French study on true fruitflies that are pests on olive trees – quite useful agricultural research in itself, not to mention that the insects are close enough to Drosophila that findings in them can be translated into Drosophila genetics.

    But that does not matter as:

    – only a handful of people are aware that she was talking about that study
    – only a handful of biologists know that Drosophila are not (‘true’) fruit flies.
    – most people will, thus, think she is dissing Drosophila research.

    Impressions matter. Her intention was to diss all of useful science, so useful science needs to fight back.

  20. #20 Lucas McCarty
    October 26, 2008

    That’s something we can all agree on absolutely.

  21. #21 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 26, 2008

    She was criticizing agricultural research!?!? But farmers are REAL AMERICANS!!!!11!!!!!!1!

  22. #22 Coturnix
    October 26, 2008

    That irony did not escape me!!!!11!!!!!!1!

  23. #23 Mad Hussein LOLscientist, FCD
    October 26, 2008

    only a handful of biologists know that Drosophila are not (‘true’) fruit flies.

    I met the late great Theodosius Dobzhansky 30-some years ago and attended the seminars he gave while he was part of a two-week “scientists in residence” program at my college. (In fact, he stayed in my dorm, and the residents took to calling him “Uncle Theo.” I think he enjoyed all the attention from 60 XX college students.) One of the things he pointed out repeatedly was that there was a difference between Drosophila and true fruit flies.

    I can only imagine what Sarah Barracuda would say if she got hold of the story about my other Evil Twin.

    I mean, what good is a green fluorescent cat, anyway? How about developing a marker for the cystic fibrosis gene as a step toward developing a gene therapy for the condition?

  24. #24 Coturnix
    October 26, 2008

    From now on, the Drosophila have a new common name – the Freedom Flies!

  25. #25 Mad Hussein LOLScientist, FCD
    October 26, 2008

    Attention all Facebookers: Join Friends of Fruit Flies!

  26. #26 S. Rivlin
    October 26, 2008

    I don’t believe that she was bad-mouthing the research on the real fruit fly. She was giving a policy speech where she described her role as a vice president who will be in charge of advancing the cause of children with special needs. These chidren have nothing to do with agriculture. These children well-being is dependent on scientific research that advances our understanding of the causes for those needs. She specifically rediculed the use of the fruit fly as a model for such research, not agricultural research.

    This woman had already put her foot in her mouth numerous times since she was introduced to us. However, due to her ignorance she is unaware of the foot (in her mouth).

  27. #27 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 27, 2008

    I am sure she hadn’t the slightest motherfucking clue *what* she was ridiculing. She just knew that it was what her deranged advisors told her to say, and that it included the lizard-brain activator code phrase “Paris, France”.

  28. #28 Trin Tragula
    October 27, 2008

    Also, I am aware that she was talking about a French study on true fruitflies that are pests on olive trees – quite useful agricultural research in itself, not to mention that the insects are close enough to Drosophila that findings in them can be translated into Drosophila genetics.

    But that does not matter as:
    – only a handful of people are aware that she was talking about…

    A handful which does not include Palin herself. The olive fruit fly work was in Montpellier, not Paris.

  29. #29 Palin
    October 27, 2008

    These to doctors are elitists! I betcha they aren’t good christians like US – good americans!

  30. #30 Rhea Miller
    October 29, 2008


  31. #31 Liz D
    November 2, 2008

    @Lucas McCarthy: I don’t know of any disease which confers any measure of advantage in any form on the individual How about sickle-cell anemia? Isn’t having the trait thought to confer protection against malaria?

  32. #32 Jack Paar
    November 15, 2008

    As ignorant as Palin might be, using autism to defend fruitfly research is also remarkably misleading and ultimately short-sighted. It is ignorant and rude for UNC’s Dr. Bhat to claim that his work was key to understanding a link between neurexin and autism. In fact, the link was made through full-fledged human genetics, and research on mice has provided the vast majority of our knowledge with regard to neurexin and its role in nervous system function. UNC and Dr. Bhat should have credited other labs and other work rather than taking the opportunity to misleadingly hype their fruitfly paper — which incidentally is really of marginal significance to those in the field.

    Fruitfly work is undeniably important, but scientists have to be honest.

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