Transcribed from the interview broadcast on the North American Public Radio news magazine Taking It All in All.
TIAIA. We’re here in the Vanderblock-Wheedle Paleontological Genetics Laboratory with Professor Orion F. X. Filter from Duck Hollow University’s Department of Paleontological Genetics. You can’t see, of course, but Professor Filter is wearing a lab coat, which is all the proof we need that he’s a top scientist in his field. Thank you for joining us, Professor.
Prof. Filter. It’s a pleasure, Thea, especially if you keep feeding me pfefferneusse.
TIAIA. So, um, one question before we start. Is that—um—is that blood on your lab coat?
Prof. Filter. It’s not easy being a top genetic paleontologist, you know!
TIAIA. No, of course not.
Prof. Filter. It’s not all skeer and bittles in the laboratory! It’s hard work, day after day, sometimes till twenty after five!
TIAIA. Yes, certainly.
Prof. Filter. So a man’s got to have some fun once in a while. Next question.
TIAIA. Okay, so, um, tell us how you discovered the genetic material that you managed to sequence.
Prof. Filter. Ah! That’s a very amusing story. We were on a dig, the team and I, and Dot—that’s Dr. Dorothy Pounding, Ph.D., another one of our professors here at our stellar Paleontological Genetics department—so Dot was, like, about fifteen feet away, and she said, “Hey, look at all this genetic material lying around here.” And that’s how it all began.
TIAIA. So how did you recognize that what you found would be the sort of genetic material you were looking for?
Prof. Filter. Well, I think the best thing to do is to show you the material. Have a look on the counter. No, that’s lunch. I mean this counter.
TIAIA. It looks like a bunch of dirty rocks.
Prof. Filter. Exactly. In those primitive days, hunter-gatherers had to hand-craft their own genomes out of stone. They couldn’t just buy one at the Metro Mart the way we do today.
TIAIA. So you say these rocks are, um, the genome.
Prof. Filter. That’s right.
TIAIA. And, um, how did you sequence it?
Prof. Filter. Good question! You see the scratch marks on this piece here?
TIAIA. It looks like a three.
Prof. Filter. It is a 3, yes. So if we take this rock as our starting point, then we find another rock that has a 2 scratched on it, and we put that on the left, as you see we’ve done here. Then we find a rock with a 4 on it, and—
TIAIA. And you put it on the right?
Prof. Filter. Exactly. And we go on down the list, just like that.
TIAIA. And you have the genome sequenced.
Prof. Filter. Well, no, then we have to do it again, because genes come in pairs, you know. So we have to make this second row up here.
TIAIA. And how long did this sequencing take you?
Prof. Filter. Well, as you see, this primitive genome has eighteen genetic pairs, so I’d say that doing the whole sequence, both strands, took about six and a half minutes. Maybe seven.
TIAIA. But how did the hunter-gatherers of 45,000 years ago know Arabic numerals?
Prof. Filter. You think it’s easy being a paleontological geneticist?
TIAIA. Well, no, of course not, but it’s just that—
Prof. Filter. It’s not, you know. You have to know all kinds of stuff. One of the things you have to know is how to recognize a number when you see it.
TIAIA. But Arabic numerals didn’t really exist till about the year 500, right? So—
Prof. Filter. I don’t think I want to talk to you anymore. You come in here and act like you’re some sort of math expert. Do you know how much math I had to study in genetics? I had to learn how to count up to eighteen.
TIAIA. But, I mean, numbered rocks—
Prof. Filter. I’m sorry, but I’m busy. I have lunch waiting for me on the counter.