Unfortunately, we do not actually know what is the source of these sequences. So we cannot determine which of the theories is correct. Obviously if there is a novel lineages of cellular organisms out there, well, that would be cool. But we have no evidence right now if that is what is going on. Personally, I think it is most likely that these novel sequences are from weird viruses. But as far as we can tell, they truly could be from a fourth major branch of cellular organisms and thus even though we did not have the story completely pinned down, we decided to finally write up the paper to get other people to think about this issue.
The story goes that scientist A. had published a paper on some particular DNA that he'd cloned into a phage. The accepted mores of science mean that, once the system was published, Dr A was obligated to provide the phage to anyone else interested in it; so Dr B wrote to him and asked for the DNA.
Dr A wrote back and gave some excuse - I've heard different versions, ranging from outright refusal to claiming he no longer had it - but anyway, did not provide the phage. Dr B looked at this refusal letter and reasoned that it had probably been written in Dr A's lab; and from that, he wondered if any phage had been floating around in the lab on the day A wrote the letter. Dr B soaked the letter in medium, added it to some bacteria, and lo and behold out grew a phage - which, sure enough,turned out to be the one Dr A supposedly didn't have.
So that's the story. It's classic UL material: a lovely moral, a nice plot twist, short and snappy. It's neither obviously false (the trick could be done) nor obviously true (I'd bet that 99% of the time, if you tried that, you'd come up empty). It's reasonably well-known among the geek crowd I hang out with.
Most of the people I've talked to only know the version I give above:let's call it the vanilla version. Last night, I went out with a bunch of friends, had a Vietnamese dinner that couldn't be beat, saw the Best of Spike and Mike's Animation festival, and got some more versions of this.The contributor (Paul) was formerly a professor at Harvard and now works in biotech. The first version he heard was in the spring of 1979, and he's heard two other versions since.
Paul's first version was rather different in that it wasn't M13, but was a phage of Corynebacterium parvum. (C. parvum is now reclassified as Propionibacterium acnes. I don't know a lot about it. Phages are used in studies of most bacteria, but not as a tool for DNA manipulation but rather for examining the bacterium.) He said that he heard it with a lot of detail, but (significantly) without any identification of the labs involved.
His second version was the vanilla one. The third took it out of science altogether and into beer (not that the two are entirely unconnected): it involved a brewer writing to a commercial brewery and asking for their yeast strain, getting a refusal letter and you know the rest.
A fourth version was provided a while ago by yet another Paul. Paul Tomblin had heard the M13 version with a twist: in his, Scientist A wanted to give the phage to B, but lawyers were involved and refused to allow it. Dr A wrote a regretful refusal to B, but hinted between the lines that the phage was in the letter and B caught on. In this version,the moral is still there but is pointed at the lawyers instead of the scientists, which changes the flavour quite a bit. There's also a new conspiracy element which wasn't in any other version I've heard.
However, this version is reminiscent of something Jan Harold Brunvand talks about in _Curses! Broiled Again!_ (ISBN 0-393-30711-5, WW Norton,New York, 1989) - pp 73-75 in my paperbound version: The Message Under The Stamp --:
... In 1943, his [Brunvand's correspondent] recounted in a letter a story that was going around about another sailor stationed in the Pacific. ...after a time, his letters stopped arriving. His mother was distraught. And she was well-nigh inconsolable after Navy authorities contacted her and reported that her son had been taken prisoner by the enemy. The mother eventually received a letter from her son. He was confined to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, he said, but he was safe and was being treated well. When the mother steamed off the stamp, though, she found a hidden message from him: "They've cut off my hands!" ... [another version about the Gestapo having cut off the prisoner's hands.] I've heard versions of the story that try to explain what led the mother to remove the stamp. In these versions, the son suggests in his letter that she should steam off the stamp for "little Alf" or "little Johnny" to add to his collection. But there is no little Alf or Johnny in the family. Nor are there any stamp collectors. The mother finally realizes this is a clue and steams the stamp off the envelope, finding the message. Given its wartime setting, it's not surprising that one variation pushes the origin of the story back from the Second World War to the First. In his autobiography _Exit Laughing, publishes in 1941, Irwin S. Cobb describes a "sad little tale which sprang up 24 years ago and now is enjoying a popular revival. It's the heart-moving one about the German housewife who writes a letter to her kinfolks in America that everything is just dandy [soaks off stamp and] underneath are the words "We are starving." I don't know how we'd get along without that standby every time war breaks out in Europe," Cobb adds.
Brunvand points out a bunch of things showing that the first version is clearly nonsense, and Cobb clearly didn't believe the second (civilian)version.
The secret hidden in the letter, and especially the hint by which the sender points to the secret, sound a lot like the phage (remember the phage? This here's a post about phages) story. If so, then this relatively recent science geek legend has antecedents going back at least 80 years.
Ian "FAQ: U" York
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