Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Microarrays: scientific indulgences

Let me first admit that the analogy isn't perfect, but then let's move on (if you're curious) to see how the two are more similar than they appear at first glance. I also assume you know a little about religion and a bit about microarrays, otherwise, why are you here?


I'm not much of a Roman Catholic aficionado, so I only know the bad side of indulgences (was/is there a good side?). Pope Leo X, true to his Medici lineage, needed lots of cash to build nice pieces of art (in this case primarily St. Peter's Basilica in Rome) to dazzle the public and to make him look like a powerful badass. When the cash flow got low, he decided to sell piles of indulgences (which were little pieces of paper offering forgiveness). This method worked well for a while. Unfortunately for Leo, the U.S.A. did not exist at this time, as this product would have been a hit in the land known for its people that throw money at quick fixes for all of their problems. More unfortunately for Leo, a German dude, Martin Luther, had the crazy idea to read the Bible and the even more preposterous idea to write the whole book out in a language that people could actually read (we'll kinda; actually few people were literate back then, but more read German than Latin I'd assume). So when people started reading the Bible (particularly Luther), they soon realized that selling forgiveness was a load of crap. Many took this as an excuse to rebel, loot, etc... The Catholic Church was in shambles, the world was at war, and it was our first big step towards creating the more intellectually free society we (sorta) have today in modern science.


Science has a few sins of its own. Not bathing, acting bizarre on purpose so people think you're the out-there smart type, and asking stupid irrelevant questions to show people how clever you are, are all just inconveniences not sins. Science has one mortal sin: knowingly publishing false information; it brings instant fame, but leads to certain excommunication if you're caught. The venial sins are more common. The two most frequent being: not publishing enough papers and not having enough grants. The punishment can be harsh for non-tenured scientists, but the tenured amongst us still must suffer the psychological trauma of being disassociated by your colleagues and being considered a has-been. Thanks to microarrays (which are little pieces of glass with DNA on them that allow you to measure the relative expression of many genes simultaneously) there is help. There is enough information in a microarray result that you're bound to find something interesting to publish, and so far there is no modern day Martin Luther.

Microarray Indulgence Quotes

My current professor doesn't ask me to go to conferences too often, but when I was working at an unnamed famous university, I'd present posters all the time. "Ten chips and a t-test and you got an Abstract". a phD student at the Boston University Pub
There are two major ways people use microarrays: hypothesis testing and hypothesis generation. A lot of labs buy ten chips for hypothesis generation when they need to write a grant. affymetrix field application specialist

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