Moose Nose Stew and The Human Genome
Jude Wanniski
February 15, 2001


Memo To: Website fans, browsers, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Of Mice and Men

Today’s guest memo is written by Dr. Gordon Prather, who writes a Saturday column for about serious stuff like nuclear missile shields and Chinese spies. Years ago, I told him I’d once eaten “Pickled Moose Nose” at a tasting in Anchorage, Alaska. He remembers it as “Moose Nose Stew,” in this whimsical commentary on the human genome. Give it a try. You might like it. It is not going to get any easier to understand.

* * * * *

The question "Are you a Man or a Mouse?" has suddenly gotten much harder to answer. There was a historic press conference this week, shown several times on CSPAN, wherein two remarkably similar versions of the human genome -- which some dim-bulb media types have mis-labeled "The Human Blueprint"-- were unveiled to the world by the two groups of scientists who, separately, mapped it. Both groups of scientists also will soon unveil their version of the mouse genome.

Man or Mouse? Why is that now harder to answer? Well, it seems the human and mouse genomes are much more alike that anyone had previously supposed. Now, you might think that the media “blueprint” crowd, after hearing that, would have bolted from the historic press conference, screaming the 21st Century equivalent of "Stop the Presses."

"The mouse blueprint is virtually the same as man's? Whooaaa!"

Well, they didn't bolt and scream. At least, not about that. In fact The Washington Post, once thought to be a great newspaper, focused not on the similarity between the genome of mice and men, but the even closer similarity between the genomes of whites and blacks. "No genetic basis for race," The Washington Post proclaims.

[Talk about being politically correct. The Post went on to pin the responsibility for most of mankind's woes on men, who -- their reporter claims -- produce too much defective sperm. That wasn't covered on CSPAN.]

Why did scientists -- who cannot be blamed for the media elite lack of perception -- expect much more genome difference? Because, scientists knew that most genes “code” for a single protein. As you know the genome is not very much like a blueprint at all. It is more like a lending library of “how-to” manuals. When you have a problem there at Mission Control, you tell one or more of your cells to go to their on-site library of “how-to” manuals -- a complete library is in every cell in your body -- and select the manual that tells their little on-site cellular factories how to make the protein Mission Control reckons you need.

All proteins -- whether mouse, tree-hugger, or tree -- are constructed from the same twenty chemical building blocks, called “amino acids.” Your muscles are proteins, the enzymes in your saliva and gut are proteins, as are the hormones in the brain and elsewhere that jerk the female of our species around like a yo-yo every 28 days.

Scientists already knew that mice and tree-huggers have many of the same genes. That is, mice and men have many of the very same “how-to” manuals in their lending libraries. Now, we humans have more than 150,000 different proteins in our bodies, but many, if not most, genes -- whether in mouse, tree-hugger, or tree -- are never “expressed.” Ever. So, in order to produce 150,000 different proteins, you might expect that humans would have, at least, several hundred thousand different types of genes. But, if -- as the scientists now agree -- the human genome only contains 30,000 different genes -- and many, if not most, of those 30,000 are never expressed -- where the heck do those 150,000 different kinds of proteins come from?

The scientists only hinted at a possible solution at their press conference, and that's where this column takes off.

Suppose all over the body there are located about a zillion short-order “mini-chefs,” all with the same recipe book. Suppose that one of those mini-chefs is required by Mission Control to cook up a particular “dish” -- that is, supply a particular protein -- with a very specific sequence of a few hundred thousand of those twenty amino acids. Suppose the dish the mini-chef is required by Mission Control to put on the table is Moose Nose Stew.

Now, the recipe for Moose Nose Stew begins "Take one medium-size moose." So your mini-chef calls up Genome Central and places an order for one medium-size moose.

"Sorry" replies the Genome Central, "we don't have all the genes necessary to make a moose. How about a mouse?" "No," says the mini-chef, "Mouse won't do. Well, make and send over several of the closest things to a moose you've got and we'll improvise."

So, the mini-chef takes several different proteins, obtained by the expression of several different human genes, slices and dices them, and reforms them into a moose nose stew protein. In that way our mini-chefs can turn the 15,000 different proteins that actually get expressed by our genes into the 150,000 different proteins that actually are found in our bodies.

But, if there is any truth to this mini-chef slice-dice-reform conjecture, some nutritionists should rethink their dogma. They apparently believe that whenever one of you consumes protein, either soy-bean protein or moose protein, that you break down each protein molecule into hundreds of thousands of those same twenty amino acid pieces of which every protein, animal or vegetable, is made. Then, once digested, according to dogma, zillions of the twenty amino acids are distributed to all the little cells in your body, where they eventually get assembled [when a gene in their cell is required by Mission Control to be expressed] into one of 15,000 proteins that our genes are called upon to produce. According to some nutritionists, you might as well drink an amino-acid “cocktail” several times a day, since all the animal and vegetable protein you do eat gets broken down into those twenty constituent amino acids.

But, we ask yet again, if the cells in your body are only capable of constructing 15,000 of the 150,000 proteins your body's mini-chefs put on the table, where do all those other proteins come from?

Well, maybe your mini-chefs don't just slice and dice the proteins your genes produce. Maybe they slice-dice-reform the proteins you eat, too. In fact, maybe your mini-chefs -- before placing an order with your genome -- first check with your gut. If there are already zillions of moose nose protein molecules there -- or something very moose-like that can be easily sliced-diced-reformed to fit -- then why bother placing an order with Genome Central to get zillions of your cells to “express” non-moose nose proteins that will also have to be sliced-diced-reformed to fit?

And, carrying this fanciful flight even farther, suppose your mini-chefs check with the man [or woman] in charge before even checking with the gut [to see if you've eaten any moose lately] or the genome [to see if it can make a moose]. That would explain why you sometimes have this urge, when you're looking at a menu in a restaurant and are having trouble making up your mind what to order, you sometimes hear this tiny little voice whisper “order the moose nose stew." Of course, if you don't live in Alaska, moose nose stew won't be on the menu. [According to Jude Wanniski, who used to live in Alaska, and has ordered the moose nose stew, it is absolutely awful. Ugh!] But, your waiter, probably named Bruce, may tell you that he's had quite a few requests for that, today, and he'll speak to the Chef.

But let's return to what should have blown The Washington Post reporter's mind. If a mini-chef wants to put moose nose stew on the table, then it doesn't much matter whether he asks a mouse genome or a human genome to provide him the ingredients. That is, most of the proteins the mouse can produce are the same as that the human can produce. Something like 90 percent of the 150,000 proteins your mini-chefs eventually put on your table apparently can be made by slicing, dicing and reforming the proteins that the mouse genome can produce.

Not enough reporters at the human genome press conference fully appreciated the excellent analogy given by Craig Venter of Celera Genomics. Venter suggested his human genome “map” was very much like the "periodic chart" of the 100 chemical elements known to exist. There are only a hundred chemical elements, but there are zillions and zillions of chemical compounds that presumably could be made from those 100 chemical elements. However, only a relatively small number of those chemical compounds either have been found in nature or have been made by mankind.

Similarly, if you accept the slice, dice and reform hypothesis [and you have to have some explanation for there being 150,000 human proteins but only about 15,000 protein encoding genes] you are confronted with the possibility that zillions and zillions of proteins could be constructed by slicing, dicing and reforming. But as Venter noted, we don't see zillions and zillions of different proteins in humans. Nor do we in mice.

And since it is the 150,000 proteins that make us what we are -- and not so much the 30,000 genes that mice and men have mostly in common -- it's the slice-dice-reform mini-chefs that we need to find out more about. Where do those guys hang out? And where do they get their recipe books? If it hurts your head to think about such weighty things as Moose Nose Stew and the Human Genome, then the next time you hear that tiny little voice saying “order the moose nose stew,” just confine yourself to wondering whether the nutritionists really know what the heck they are talking about.