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The wordy quest for the thrill-seeking gene

The wordy quest for the thrill-seeking gene
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First Published: Fri, Dec 14 2007. 01 14 PM IST

Gene pool: Is thrill seeking a part of your molecular make-up?
Gene pool: Is thrill seeking a part of your molecular make-up?
Updated: Fri, Dec 14 2007. 01 14 PM IST
Who is Samir Kumar Brahmachari? He is a person I encountered when I sought to answer the question: why thrills? I think there is something wrong with me. Oh, please, don’t titter. I am nursing a...headache here. My problem is that I am a thrill seeker: something that is fine when you are 19 and have nothing to lose, but not when you are supposedly all grown up. So why do I seek thrills? Certainly not to escape my daily life, which, while quotidian, is as Jack Nicholson said with masterly understatement to Helen Hunt, “about as good as it gets”.
Gene pool: Is thrill seeking a part of your molecular make-up?
After much thought, I have come to feel that thrill seeking is a biological thing. Some scientists say that it is because of a gene called neurod2, which helps form a part of the brain called amygdala. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, most normal mice have two copies of the neurod2 gene. When scientists modified the mice so that they had only one copy of neurod2, the mice lacking neurod2 took excessive risks compared with the normal mice with two copies of neurod2.
I suppose I am like those mice with a deficiency of neurod2. Or as my brother would say, I am like a mentally deficient mouse.
In an attempt to investigate this further, I wrote to Brahmachari, who was until recently director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. I read about Brahmachari in the Deccan Herald, which I like for its science coverage. The article touted Brahmachari’s new appointment as director general of CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research).
So, I emailed the good scientist. “Dear Dr Brahmachari,” I said. “Congratulations on your new appointment as director general of CSIR. I am a columnist who writes for Mint. Can I ask a question about genetics? Is there a thrill-seeking gene?”
Got right to the point, I did.
To my distress, I never heard back. You did it all wrong, my mother said. He is such a high-ranking scientist. You should have properly introduced yourself, highlighted the virtues of your newspaper and explained your intentions.
Ma, I said with just a touch of asperity, this isn’t a marriage proposal. Brahmachari is not interested in my antecedents. He is interested in my genes.
I called my father who is something of an expert on these matters. Appa, I said, I think there is something wrong with my writing style. I keep emailing scientists but not a single one replies.
Presumably they have better things to do, my husband deadpanned. I glared at him. 
My dad had a few words of wisdom. Mimic the person you are writing to, he said. In other words, if you write to a fund manager, you ought to drop words such as “yield curve”, “third quarter returns” and “quantitative analysis” in order to appear intelligent. With scientists, I had to drop scientific terms. Brahmachari probably would have taken me seriously if I had written something like, “Dear Dr B. I read your excellent paper on “beta(2)-adrenergic receptor polymorphisms and response to salbutamol among Indian asthmatics” as well as your other papers in the BioInfoBank library online. I can’t claim to understand everything it said, especially the part about TATA-less genes. But I have a related question: Is there a thrill-seeking gene?”
My chances of receiving a response would have been higher had I written knowledgeably about TATA-less genes (were they related to Ratan Tata?), dropped a few names and papers. Instead, I had come across like an idiot. No wonder Brahmachari wanted nothing to do with me. As someone who admires scientists, I took such a rejection personally. Pure scientists, to my mind, are like angels (“Paris”) flitting through a parallel universe, traversing the realm of ideas. Sure, in today's world, they are bogged down by grant proposals, funding and the pressure to publish. But when it comes right down to it, I don't think pure scientists are in it for the three things that supposedly make the world go around: money, power, or fame. Instead, what makes them tick is the idea, the quest for the truth, albeit the truth about proteomics, nano-structured materials and other things that the rest of us barely comprehend, much less care about.
Although he is an expert at genomics and integrative biology, Brahmachari’s speciality is actually molecular biophysics. This is a dazzling interdisciplinary area that combines every heavyweight science you can think of: physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering. The Indian Institute of Science, where Brahmachari worked at and got his PhD from, has a cutting-edge molecular biophysics unit. The challenges in this field are formidable. First of all, you are dealing with really tiny…stuff: biomolecular systems, viruses, supramolecules and the like. You need to design specialized imaging equipment just to see the darn things. Then you have to manipulate them, modify them, and figure out how to use them in our lives. These molecules don’t care, you see. They just are. It is up to the scientist to come up with novel approaches of ahem…approaching them. Hence the combination of engineering equipment, math formulae, chemical manipulations, biological know-how, all under the broad umbrella of physics. In other words, molecular biophysics is not for the faint of brain. Only seriously smart people need apply.
By the time I found out all this about Brahmachari, I was in an advanced state of neurosis. I mean, here was a guy who was certainly not in the “shallow end of the gene pool”, to use the immortal line from The Lion King. The guy was probably a genius and I had written him this bald one-line email about thrill-seeking genes. So I called his office. After many tries, I got through to his secretary, a man with a kindly voice. As soon as I introduced myself, he said, “Ah yes, we have got your email but He has not seen it. We will get back to you.” I had half a mind to ask the gentle secretary to destroy the email but I feared I would appear even more moronic. So I decided to do the only thing possible: bone up on my genetics in case the good Dr B phoned back. I now know all about neurod2 genes but I am still waiting to hear from Brahmachari.
So, Dr B, in case you are reading this: Is there a thrill-seeking gene? (I never give up, do I?)
 
Shoba Narayan is seeking to improve the level of her neurod2 genes . Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Dec 14 2007. 01 14 PM IST