Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Okazaki Strategies for Babies

Little Bro decided to crawl on Saturday. There were three knee-shuffling steps, so we declared him a crawler. It took until Monday for him to realise that crawling is a good way to get to objects of interest, especially when noone appears ready to bring them to you. He is gradually extending his range, and will crawl to objects a metre or two away, but no further. It’s interesting to watch- to me it’s so clear that if you can crawl two metres, then to reach an object four metres away requires two sets of two metre crawls, yet for Little Bro it appears (as far as I can tell, which isn't far) that things are either “Within Reach”-less than two metres away- or “Out Of Reach”- more than two metre away- and if it’s Out Of Reach then there is no point in wasting energy trying to reach them.

Pondering this apparent mindset reminded me of a story a colleague told me a few years back, of an important discovery about how DNA (genetic material) is copied in cells.

In the 1960s, many researchers around the world were racing against each other to find the answer to a particular question on the mechanics of how DNA is copied. This achievement was so important that it would bring the successful researcher fame, fortune and scientific immortality. They all realised that, using the technology of the day, the breakthrough would come from an experiment conducted not on the scale of a single test tube, but on the scale of thousands of test tubes.

Most of the research groups set about trying to conduct one huge experiment, thousands of times bigger than they had ever done before, in order to reach the answer. However, Reiji and Tsuneko Okazaki, a husband and wife team in Japan, took a different approach. They conducted the same small experiment thousands of times, eventually obtaining enough material with which they could reveal the question’s answer (and for their efforts there is a molecule called the “Okazaki Fragment”). *

Watching Little Bro crawl, I waiting for him to make the crawling breakthrough equivalent to the Okazakis’ experimental strategy: that a journey can be taken as a series of small stages, the sum of which can be large, but each of which is achievable.

And I guess it’s a mindset that can be applied to so many aspects of life (or science): a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or a few knee shuffles when you’re only 9 months old.

*Unfortunately I can’t find anything on the internet to corroborate or refute this story: most of the information about the discovery is purely method-based or has a very limited biography of the Okazakis. Either way, it's a good story to illustrate the benefits of lateral thinking.

For those with an interest in scientific history there is, however, a wonderful quote about the announcement of the discovery at a Cold Spring Harbor Lab Symposium:

"Okazaki was able to sit back and allow others to toss flowers into his lap through the succeeding days, for there were several confirmations [of his ideas]."

Don’t we all want our presentations to be received this way?

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