Genome Whiz!

Learn fun things about the humble mole rat, getting busted in East St. Louis and why our city wants to have the blues

On April 14, 2003, an international research team announced that the human genetic code, the diagrammed sentence of our biological selves, had been fully sequenced -- a remarkable accomplishment in which Washington University's Genome Sequencing Center played a central role. Let's give a shout-out to all our Lou scientists!

But what have you done for us lately? A lot, as it turns out. Wash. U.'s sequencing center is continuing its quest for supreme knowledge by cracking the code of our genetic superior, the chicken. From there, it's on up the evolutionary ladder to the planaria -- a worm that, if cut in half, regenerates into two animals. "If you cut off their head, they basically grow back a head," explains Dr. Richard Wilson, executive director of the GSC. Who couldn't use a fresh head, or a new ass, every few years? Wilson says the worm contains cells similar to stem cells, which is why their genetic makeup is so potentially useful. "We may be able to learn a lot about why stem cells do the things they do by studying this real simple worm."

Armed with an impending announcement due in early November regarding continued funding from the National Institutes of Health, the center's also sequencing the DNA of the chimpanzee, the fruit fly and some bacteria Unreal can't pronounce. "If we understood all the instructions that make them the way that they are, and get messed up and cause them to get diseases, then we'd know a lot more about ourselves, and the instructions are in the genome," says Wilson.

The chicken, the chimp, the worm and the fly: all deserving creatures, no doubt. But we'd like to suggest a few more worthy candidates for the Wash. U. sequencing program, creatures that promise to reveal a plethora of information about the human condition:

Mole Rat(Heterocephalus glaber) Ladies, pay attention. Each mole rat (see photo) of your superior gender has up to three mole rat gentlemen tending to her "needs." In addition, these hairless family/love units also get a posse for protection and late-night errand running. A whole other collection of hangers-on dig tunnels with their two Bugs Bunny teeth, and find earthen cuisine for you. The naked rodents' average life span is twenty years, right around the time the fun ends for us humans.

Black Vulture(Coragyps atratus) Why is there evil in the world? Rot? Decay? To service the needs of the bottom feeders, of course, those whose livelihood is emboldened by the presence of tragedy, death and rot. For what reason do there exist flies that eat poop? What drives Connie Chung (Povichspouse heartstringyankus)? Do vultures and Connie Chung share similar olfactory genes with maggots?

Unicorn(Unibrowpole horsemythicus) Understanding the building blocks of this mythical animal will in turn provide us with clues as to the existence of equally elusive rainbows, leprechauns, crop circles and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Silverfish(Fuckingrossashellus grodylicious) Why is this bug, so furry and, on paper, so cute -- admit it, it's fuzzy and squirmy, and thus supposed to be cute -- cause such universal fits of the willies? What's up with Bill Haas? Why David Spade? Who are we? Why are we here?

Home of the Blues

Yes, it may be a faraway wish on a distant horizon -- and perhaps a tad quixotic -- but recent meetings on Laclede's Landing have centered on the creation of a national Blues Hall of Fame right here in St. Louis, somewhere within the riverfront district.

Last month Dawne Massey, executive director of the Laclede's Landing Merchants Association, convened an ex-ploratory committee that drew up a business plan she intends to present to the may-or's office next week. There's no funding yet, Massey concedes; that (of course) will come later. But she has, she reports, had encouraging discussions with the Music Museum Alliance, a consortium whose members include the Smithsonian Institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Country Music Association in Nashville. If aligned with the Alliance, the Blues Hall would be privy to traveling exhibits, which Massey envisions would augment a collection of St. Louis blues-related ephemera.

"Pretty much anybody could throw a bunch of old stuff in a room and say, 'Yes, it's a blues mu-seum.'" says Massey. "But we want to make it the national blues museum -- the hall of fame. Because there is no physical hall of fame for blues artists."

There is, however, a virtual one: the Blues Foundation, located in Memphis. They're responsible for the annual W.C. Handy Awards -- the Oscars of the blues -- and have been inducting musicians into their Blues Hall of Fame for 23 years. But they don't have a building. Locating it in St. Louis would serve to remind outsiders that, despite the obvious truth that Memphis is closer to the birthplace of the music than St. Louis, our city has its own blues heritage; Robert Johnson did, after all, play rent parties on Jefferson Avenue.

Not so fast, says Jay Sieleman, director of administration for the Blues Foundation. "It should be in Memphis," he says, though he adds that at least St. Louis "wouldn't be as ridiculous as Nashville or Cincinnati or someplace like that, clearly. St. Louis is better than Seattle -- but not as good as Memphis."

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