The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 06 Dec 2006

Serendipitous web searches
In yesterday's article about a paper of Robert French, I mentioned that I had run across it while looking for something entirely unrelated. The unrelated thing is pretty interesting itself.

Back in the 1950's and 1960's, James V. McConnell at the University of Michigan was doing some really interesting work on learning and memory in planaria flatworms, shown at right. They used to publish their papers in their own private journal of flatworm science, The Journal of Biological Psychology. They didn't have enough material for a full journal, so when you were done reading the Journal, you could flip it over and read the back half, which was a planaria-themed humor magazine called The Worm-Runner's Digest. I swear I'm not making this up.

(I think it's time to revive the planaria-themed humor magazine. Planaria are funny even when they aren't doing anything in particular. Look at those googly eyes!)

(For some reason I've always found planaria fascinating, and I've known about them from an early age. We would occasionally visit my cousin in Oradell, who had a stuffed toy which was probably intended to be a snake, but which I invariably identified as a flatworm. "We're going to visit your Uncle Ronnie," my parents would say, and I would reply. "Can I play with Susan's flatworm?")

Anyway, to get on with the point of this article, McConnell made the astonishing discovery that memory has an identifiable chemical basis. He trained flatworms to run mazes, and noted how long it took to do so. (The mazes were extremely simple T shapes. The planarian goes in the bottom foot of the T. Food goes in one of the top arms, always the same one. Untrained planaria swim up the T and then turn one way or the other at random; trained planaria know to head toward the arm where the food always is. Pretty impressive, for a worm.)

Then McConnell took the trained worms and ground them up and fed them to untrained worms. The untrained worms learned to run the maze a lot faster than the original worms had, apparently demonstrating that there was some sort of information in the trained worms that survived being ground up and ingested. The hypothesis was that the information was somehow encoded in RNA molecules, and could be physically transferred from one individual to another. Isn't that a wonderful dream?

You can still see echoes of this in the science fiction of the era. For example, a recurring theme in Larry Niven's early work is "memory RNA", people getting learning injections, and pills that impart knowledge when you swallow them. See World Out of Time and The Fourth Profession, for example. And I once had a dream that I taught a giant planarian to speak Chinese, then fried it in cornmeal and ate it, after which I was able to speak Chinese. So when I say it's a wonderful dream, I'm speaking both figuratively and literally.

Unfortunately, later scientists were not able to reproduce McConnell's findings, and the "memory RNA" theory has been discredited. How to explain the cannibal flatworms' improved learning times, then? It seems to have been sloppy experimental technique. The original flatworms left some sort of chemical trail in the mazes, that remained after they had been ground up. McConnell's team didn't wash the mazes in between tests, and the cannibal flatworms were able to follow the trails later; it had nothing to do with their diet. Bummer.

So a couple of years ago I was poking around, looking for more information about this, and in particular for a copy of McConnell's famous paper Memory transfer through cannibalism in planarium, which I didn't find. But I did find the totally unrelated Robert French paper. It mentions McConnell, as an example of another cool-sounding and widely-reported theory that took a long time to dislodge, because it's hard to produce clear evidence that cannibal flatworms aren't in fact learning from their lunch meat, and because the theory that they aren't learning is so much less interesting-sounding than the theory that they are. News outlets reported a lot about the memory RNA breakthrough, and much less about the later discrediting of the theory.

French's paper, you will recall, refutes the interesting-sounding hypothesis that infants resemble their fathers more strongly then they do their mothers, and has many of the same difficulties.

There are counterexamples. Everyone seems to have heard that the Fleischmann and Pons tabletop cold fusion experiment was an error. And the Hwang Woo-Suk stem cell fraud is all over the news these days.

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