Random Thoughts

Murder by Myth, Malice & Genius

A recurrent myth in Hindu mythology is prayer and penance by the demons (Asuras), who are then granted boons (ashirwaad) by Brahma, the creator or Shiva, the ascetic. It is then left to Vishnu, the crafty sustainer to find a clever way to kill the demon despite the boons, without violating the promises of his fellow triumvirate dons. Hiranyakashyapa, meaning golden haired, was given a boon by Brahma, the creator, that he could not be killed by a person or animal, during day or night, on the ground or while suspended in air, neither within or without a dwelling, by weapons or by one born of a woman or created by Brahma. 

As a student in early school, I was fascinated and immersed in Hindu and Greek myths. The Jesuit and British established professional schools in India had some Latin mottos on their emblems. The pathology museum of my medical school had an inscribed Latin phrase, “Vivitr en genio, cetera erunt mortis” (genius alone survives, all else is mortal). Hiranyakashyapa asked Brahma for immortality but was refused, as that was the privilege of only gods not golden haired mortals. He then used his brain to ask for the above multiple exemptions to his death. The Hindu myth makers invented the myth of Narsinha (man-lion) as the incarnation of Vishnu (hence not Brahma’s creation), who appeared spontaneously out of a red hot pillar, that Hiranyakashyapa ordered his god loving son Prahlada to embrace, as punishment. The man-lion picked up the demon and sat on the threshold of his palace, put the victim on his lap and tore him asunder with his talons, precisely at twilight (neither day or night).

Murder by malice was the modus operandi of many European colonizers in the Americas, Australia and Africa. The Puritans of New England had no hesitation in giving small pox contaminated blankets to American Indians and the Spanish conquistadores slaughtered and enslaved ruthlessly in the Caribbean, Central and South American lands. The Cherokee trail of tears and the perfidy of president Andrew Jackson and manifest destiny is a sordid tale of infamy. The British settlers used the sophistry of Locke to deprive the American natives of their lands. Locke, the convenient philosopher, claimed that ownership of land is only granted to those who till it and thus foraging and hunting natives had no claim to America. The argument changes conveniently in depriving the Palestinians of their land because 2700 years ago, there was a kingdom of Israel. It was defeated and depopulated but the Jewish claim to the land is still valid but not that of the native Americans.

In fairness, Britain even in the Middle ages put a higher priority on property rights than on any other human liberty and Madison and Hamilton conspired to formulate the American Republic with the express intention of preventing a tyranny of the majority and a rule of the opulent minority. There were draconian punishments in Britain for even petty thievery and varied from indentured servitude, deportation (to Australia and America) and even death. The convicts in Australia, particularly in Tasmania, went on a systematic killing spree of native aboriginals and ultimately killed off all males and held the women as prisoners while defacing their dead bodies for a pseudoscientific goal, as bad as that of the Nazi Dr. Mengele. This is all well documented in the colonial archives and Robert Hughes book “Fatal Shores”. The centuries of slavery in the US and slavery by another name even after the civil war, are indictments of the US government and puts it in the same category as the Japanese rape of Nanking.

That is why to end on an upbeat note, I will briefly chronicle the genius of two scientists (Anthony James & Luke Alphey) using modern genetic technology in attempting a genocide of Aedes aegypti, the sole carrier mosquito of the Dengue virus. It is a tale worth telling and much of the data is from Bijal Trivedi’s article in Scientific American. Dengue is a viral disease and unsusceptible to antibiotics or currently known treatment. The symptoms are a bonebreaking fever with recovery in most cases. In some first cases and in recurrences, a hemorrhagic fatal form is more likely. This particular mosquito is a Brahmin one. It prefers to breed in clean water and thus water scarce countries like India (but also in Africa, Caribbean, South America and Southeast Asia) where households store water for use, provide a breeding ground. It also does not follow the normal night life of mosquitoes. It does not believe the Gita, which says, “Yaa nishaa sarva bhutaanaam, tasyaam jagrati samyami” (the self-controlled creature is awake in the night of other creatures). Thus it bites its victims during the day and mosquito nets do not offer protection.

One technique which had been tried successfully in cattle screw worms and cotton boll weevils, is to breed male insects, radiate them to cause genetic mutations and then release them in endemic areas. The defective males will mate with females in competition with other normal males and their progeny will be defective and unable to parasitize, with an ultimate crash of the population of the pests. The technique failed because the irradiated male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, while not gay, just sit and meditate and prefer to be grounded. They could be humming, “Duniyaa men aur bhi dukh hai mohabbat ke siwa”, but in mosquitoes, the females do most of the serenading.

First, the researchers learned to clone and alter a mosquito gene. It is only the female mosquito which bites to suck blood and carries the virus particles in its salivary glands. The new developments in the science of evolutionary development (Evo-Devo for short) tell us that there are various switches around the gene (constituted by the nucleotide code) which can turn on or off the gene to make or not make its protein. Not uncommonly the protein product itself then attaches to other switches of other genes, sometimes starting a cascade which leads to orderly, sequential and controlled development and differentiation of the tissues and organs of the embryo or larva.

In 2002 James & Alphey identified a naturally occurring switch that controls flight-muscle development in females. If flight-muscle development is faulty, the female mosquito can’t fly and so it can’t bite a human and spread dengue. With money from the Gates Foundation and other sources, the team devised a section of DNA including a handful of genes and their switches. This is liking writing a code for instructions in software. The resemblance to a microprocessor and relay is close. First the female specific gene flips on guiding development to a female. This results in another gene being turned on to produce another protein. This protein switches on another gene which produces a toxin which destroys the developing female’s flight muscles.

The defective female won’t fly too much and won’t bite, but it won’t mate either so we get the case of the inactivatable Russian sleepers in America. The researchers then found that if the larvae were fed tetracycline (water laced with it) then the female flight-muscle developed normally despite the defective gene. The next problem was how to identify the defective larva which had been transfected by the engineered gene sequence. They included a gene for fluorescence (Normal in some jelly fish) in the gene sequence. Those transfection which were successful gave rise to fluorescent larvae. The tetracycline laced water protected the defective females from manifesting the symptoms and disease. These females could be released and would mate but their progeny would be defective and disabled females (no naturally occurring tetracycline laced water) or males unaffected but carrying the lethal gene which would mate and have defective female and carrier male offspring. The female population would crash and Aedes aegypti would suffer the same fate without females as the Tasmanian aborigines suffered for lack of males.

The obvious question which should arise in the mind of readers is, why they are not trying to do the same for mosquito carriers of malaria, a much more prevalent, lethal and debilitating disease. The answer is that there are many different species of Anopheles which carry the malaria parasite unlike only one for Dengue. Also Dengue is beginning to appear in Southern USA and developed countries and genetic and bio-pharmaceutical companies also follow American bank robber Sutton’s law and go where the money is. To date, Cayman Islands, Brazil and Malaysia already have an ongoing pilot project for Dengue control by this method.


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

Top | Random Thoughts

Views: 3459      Comments: 2

Comment Thanks Navin. Your niece is the one who deserves the compliments for a lucid article and the researchers for shining the light, for they lead us from Timir (darkness in Sanskrit from which the English word timid is derived). to Jyoti. I am merely a mirror reflecting the light of others and at best polarizing it. I am on my winter vacation for some months.

Gauran Bhatt

gaurang bhatt
08-Dec-2011 02:49 AM

Comment I have heard of your prowess in writing from Praful.
This is just brilliant .Keep on and enlighten us.
Incidentally,Bijal is my niece.Her dad is Emeritus Professor and holds a
chair in Economics at I ndiana University.

Nalin Trivedi
01-Dec-2011 21:21 PM

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