Bad Genes: Catchin, Hittin, and Rap

BOSTON--Scientists have a new theory to explain the Boston Red Sox's 80-years-and-counting without winning a World Series: Poor play resulted from a deletion of the genes responsible for producing the proteins catchin and hittin. At a gut-bustin' symposium held at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, three researchers presented these and other fictitious results in a tradition poking fun at their own profession.

Josh LaBaer and Steve Pells, two oncology postdocs, inaugurated "The Art of Scientific Speaking" 4 years ago as an attempt to call the bluff of an MGH oncologist, Ed Harlow. LaBaer says they were inspired by a comment from Harlow that "Any scientist worth his salt can give a presentation, so long as he has a rack of slides." To put Harlow's bravado to the test, LaBaer and Pells gave him and other researchers appalling data slides--graphs with giant error bars, overexposed gels, and animals with extraordinary phenotypes--and just a few hours to come up with a talk. Since then, the presentations have become an MGH holiday tradition.

This year's symposium was standard wacky fare. In one presentation, Andrea McClatchey, who studies tumor-suppressor genes, showed a slide with the protein structure of catchin, which she claimed to have isolated from sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. As part of her study, she also surveyed her hometown team, indicating that the Red Sox suffered from "a deletion at the catchin and hittin loci."

Stepping up next to the plate was Andre Bernards, who revealed that knocking out a gene called morin produced an intelligence boost accompanied by distinct physical changes. "The mice assumed a rather swine-ish appearance," he noted gravely. "I didn't know what to make of it." His grad students came to the rescue, detecting a striking correlation to senior MGH staff. Their stunning finding led to a theory that Bernards unveiled at the meeting: "The more intelligent a PI is, the more swine-ish his behavior."

If you think that talk deserved a bad rap, you were lucky you didn't hear the rap song one scientist composed around a gene called rap. "In the end it turns out that the data are irrelevant," says LaBaer, now finishing up his postdoc. "They can work the results around their research."