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ICG2008: of PCR and oom-pah-pah

It got a little bit busier than this

Last night I attended the opening ceremony of the International Congress of Genetics in Berlin. Three Nobel Prize winners – Oliver Smithies, Mario Cappechi and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard – described their key work. It overran by an hour and a quarter. So much for German efficiency, but I guess that’s what happens when you ask such a stellar line-up to keep their talks to 20 minutes each.

If the ICC lecture hall had included a clap-ometer, that most scientific of devices for measuring audience appreciation, the biggest reaction by far would have been for Oliver Smithies. He took the audience on a whistlestop tour through 60 years of his laboratory notebook, upon whose pages some of the most important advances in molecular biology were first recorded. When he wasn’t busy inventing new techniques (gel electrophoresis, knockout mice…) he tinkered away on home-made lab equipment. Here’s a picture of a PCR machine he knocked together in 1987, before such things (and the Taq polymerase at the heart of PCR) were commercially available. He still uses it today.

After the opening symposium we were crowded into a reception area for beer and pretzel. The German cuisine was complemented with traditional folk music from these guys.

I rather enjoyed it, but my Teutonic colleagues were visibly embarrassed. I suppose the same would be true in England if the reception featured morris dancers.

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