Henry Wu: “Are you saying that a group of animals
entirely comprised of females will breed?”
Dr. Ian Malcolm: “No. I am merely saying
that life finds a way.”
-Jurassic Park- 1993
Our first assigned experiment in Biology 101 involved the well-known fruit fly, scientifically known as Drosophila melanogaster (much more impressive than my scientific name Homo sapiens). Utilizing this tiny creature we were supposed to learn about genetics, purportedly cross breeding them and studying what comes from the cross. The flies were stored in vials with a food substance in the bottom of the tube. Fruit flies are used in place of rats or fish due to the low maintenance and ease of care involved. Unsure of specifics I whispered to Jim, “How do we know if our flies are male or female? They’re awful small and even under a microscope I can’t see any obvious giveaways. What are we supposed to look for?” Jim was a trusting soul and answered, “Mr. Harrison said we have plenty of both in our vial so we’ll just have to wait and see.”
At first we had difficulty keeping our “low maintenance” flies from dying. “Hey Jim, we’re supposed to look at them under the microscope, but how do we keep them from flying away?” Jim confidently responded, “We just anesthetize them with a little of this ether and they’ll be knocked out for a while, giving us plenty of time to examine them.” When we applied the ether the flies were indeed rendered motionless. What do you get when you cross a “Curly” fruit fly with a “Wildtype” fruit fly? We never found out the answer to that question. Our fruit flies were either a. all male, b. all female, c. homosexual, or d. we kept killing them with too much ether or the excess ether caused sterility. Whatever the reason, our fruit flies did not become “fruitful and multiply”. There’s a reason I ended Biology with a C grade.
Jim and I were given a second chance in joint experimentation, this time with mice. The genetic lesson wasn’t all that different from the fruit flies we had tried to breed. Why mice? They’re cheap, breed quickly, and their genetic code is similar to, though much simpler than a humans. What do you get when you cross white mice with black ones? Which traits are dominant? Jim and I were assigned to find out answers to those questions and more. “Jim, where do we get mice?” I asked. “We had a mouse in our house one time and we caught it with a mousetrap, but it was dead and that wouldn’t do us any good with our experiment.” Jim looked at me with an odd look on his face and replied, “We go to the store and buy them.” Maybe I hadn’t been to the right stores, but I was sure that Carthage didn’t have any mice stores. I was right. Joplin was where we had to go.
Being very explicit with the clerk at the “mice store” as to our need for both male and female mice, we paid the man and loaded our cage and two mice into the back of my car and began the sixteen mile drive back to my house. I would be the first to house our experiment, in my bedroom, but only after assuring Mom that the mice would remain in their cage. On the way home I cranked up some Bachman Turner Overdrive, to a volume designed to hear all the nuances of the music. Upon arriving home I took the cage into the house and showed the family my newfound prized possessions. Timmy, always observant asked, “Ronnie, how come the mice aren’t moving?” “Maybe they’re asleep” I guessed. It was soon evident that the mice were expired. “We got ripped off Jim! These mice are dead.”
After much contemplation we both agreed that the mice were very healthy when we put them in the car, so it had to be something in the transport from Joplin to Carthage. At first we speculated that it may have been the car ride; possible death from motion sickness. We ruled that out because no one else in class had it happen to them. Our next guess was probably right on when we both said, “The music!” Apparently our mice were not BTO fans; at least not at the decibel level they were forced to endure. Barry Manilow would have probably been more appropriate and may even have put them in the mood for “love”.
We took the dead mice back to the store and were allowed an “even exchange”. This time, I made sure to keep the music at a minimum volume and the mice made it home safely. Unfortunately, our mice had something other than love on their minds and fought viciously the entire time we had them; ripping into each other with fur flying, raw skin exposed, blood dripping, and an overall nasty attitude. We tried everything to get them to cohabitate, but to no avail. At the end of the appointed time, our experiment had failed. No babies, no genetic conclusions drawn. We determined that the store clerk didn’t know the difference between a male and female (and obviously neither did we) and we ended up with two of the same. Or maybe these two mice just weren’t made for each other. Another experiment gone bust; another substandard grade.
Near the end of the school year the teacher relaxed his requirements and allowed us to come up with experiments of our own. After much consultation, Jim and I decided to catch a bullfrog in the wild and bring it into class for some analysis; what research we were intending wasn’t spelled out yet, but we knew we wanted to use a frog. At least we were experienced at catching frogs, only this time we had to bring it in; alive!
When it came time to demonstrate to the teacher that we had real scientific motives for bringing in the frog, Jim came up with the brilliant idea that we would hook up an electric current to the bullfrog’s heart to see how long we could keep the heart alive (this was entirely Jim’s experiment; I was lab assistant on this one). For some reason the teacher gave us the go ahead.
Once the frog was sliced open, Jim attached small alligator clips to the now, no longer beating heart of the “dead” frog. Once the 120 volt current reached the heart, it began to beat slowly and steadily. We both became excited and I exclaimed to the other students, “Hey everybody, look over here. We’ve got a beating heart in a dead frog!” The remainder of the class, involved in their individual experiments, didn’t seem interested and maintained their focus on the task at hand.
Suddenly, the frog came alive and began twitching on the table. The muscles were stimulated by the electric current and I thought of Dr. Frankenstein’s line, “Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive…It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!” In a reflexive moment, one of the rear legs jerked outwardly and some of the blood surrounding the frog was splattered in my direction. Looking down at my new, bright yellow tank top sprinkled with dark red blood, I uttered loudly “f—!” This time the class was all ears, and so was Mr. Harrison. It’s a wonder I made it out of that class alive.
*This was an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen to be released in 2014. “Little Heathens” is available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and other fine retail stores.