Some 40,000 years ago, early humans, having migrated from Africa to the Fertile Crescent, and from there to the Central Asian steppes, continued their circuitous route westward into Europe, where they found themselves out of the glare of the African sun.
This wasn’t necessarily a point in the early humans’ favor. The body needs sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, without which it may develop rickets. But some of the humans, by way of a genetic mutation, acquired (or perhaps, brought with them) a selective advantage: a tweak in the gene that codes for pigmentation, expressing itself in lighter skin that could synthesize more vitamin D at higher latitudes.
In 2005, Dr. Keith Cheng, a cancer researcher at Penn State Hershey, chanced upon a gene that affects the pigmentation of stripes in the zebrafish, an inch-and-a-half long minnow popular in genetics and biology labs. His team, extrapolating from that discovery, was able to uncover a single genetic mutation—one letter change out of 3 billion in our DNA—that largely explains the difference in skin tone between Africans and Europeans.
Last Saturday, at the Midtown Scholar bookstore in Harrisburg, Dr. Khai Chung Ang, who joined Cheng’s lab as a postdoc in 2009, talked about his ongoing research into the color of human skin. His inquiry started with a puzzle: although the lab had identified a mutation leading to light skin in Europeans, the mutation causing light skin in East Asians, who had followed a different migration pattern, remains unknown.
Moreover, whatever the mutation was, it left light-skinned Asians with a remarkable advantage. East Asians, despite having nearly the same pigmentation as Europeans, have about one-twentieth the rate of melanoma—about as low a risk as Africans. Identifying the East Asian “light-skin” gene, Ang theorized, could help us understand the genetic factors affecting the disease.
At the foot of the stage, a high table was heaped with cookies, brownies, and three tanks of zebrafish. (A smaller dish held a puddle of zebrafish embryos, some of them dormant, some on the wing.) The presentation was partly for the purposes of edification, but mostly it was a pitch for funding. Ang, along with two teammates, Tiffany Foster and Katherine Reid, needed to raise $15,000 by Dec. 28 in order to fund a sample-collecting trip to Dominica. On the table was also a stack of makeshift greeting cards: “Give the Gift of Science” was printed over a photo of a test tube tied with lacey ribbon.
“We’re down to, like, a 3 percent funding rate for federal grants,” Foster had said a few days earlier. The National Institutes of Health, which provides most of the funding for research like theirs, has increasingly restricted its grants to projects it considers low-risk. A sampling trip, though a relatively small piece of an overall budget, was only a preliminary step in a project that may or may not be going anywhere. “Getting the samples is just part of the research,” Ang said. “It doesn’t prove that your project’s gonna be successful.”
About a year ago, Ang began looking at the possibility of using crowd-funding to finance the trip to Dominica. After weighing a few options, he settled on a site called Microryza, which is a fundraising platform exclusively focused on science. Like Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform for creative projects, Microryza’s bids are all-or-nothing propositions: either the project reaches its goal and is funded, or it falls short and gets nothing.
Foster began the presentation by saying there was a need to “close the gap between the scientific community and the public.” A slide came up on the projector, mapping the current funding model for scientific research: a line of arrows flowing from the public through taxes and the government, ending in grants. Ang elaborated. “The funding for science should come from the public, the scientists should do it, and then it should benefit the public again,” he said. Crowd-funding was a way for members of the public to give direct support to the research they wanted to see done, and, possibly, to have better access to the results.
“We call ourselves lab rats, we lock ourselves in the lab,” Ang said. “But the part that’s lacking is that we have to go out into the community and share our research.”
The Scholar, for all its charm, can be a tricky place to make a pitch. Ang and his team were competing with the sounds of the coffee bar, and when they opened the floor for questions, someone asked, “Why aren’t you doing crowd-funding?”
“No, we are,” Ang clarified.
Later, they would step down from the stage, and Foster would prompt Ang to talk about the challenges of collecting samples. Over a period of several years, Ang had built trust among the Orang Asli, the indigenous population of Malaysia. Eventually, they permitted him to take blood—the first time, Foster said, the group had ever agreed to such a collection—and the pool of 500 samples would provide a point of comparison in the study. (The indigenous population of Dominica, the Kalinago, have a mix of East Asian and West African ancestry, like the Orang Asli, that is virtually free of mingling with European settlers.)
How had Ang forged a relationship with the tribe? “Farming with them, fishing with them.”
“Eating lizard with them,” Foster added.
“Eating lizard with them,” Ang repeated.
“Raw monitor lizard,” he said.
One difficulty in getting DNA is the problem of tainted samples. In Malaysia, Ang had resigned to collecting blood, after discovering that cheek swabs were yielding plant DNA—residue from the betel nut, which is ritually chewed in South Asia. In Dominica, he planned for saliva samples, which are easier to bring back into the states than blood, but the team faced a similar problem. To draw members of the population into one place for testing, they were going to host a pig roast. “Everybody loves to eat, right?” Ang said. “But then you get pig DNA.”
Before that, though, the question-and-answer session was dominated by a long exchange with one African-American man, who had approached the foot of the stage to offer what was not so much a question but an impromptu lecture. He felt misled by the event, because he thought it was a chance to learn about science, when really it had been mostly an appeal for funding. He thought they should have focused more on the hope for a cure for melanoma, because that was the project’s “sizzle.”
This irritated at least one spectator, who wanted the man to pipe down so the team could address more substantive questions. This spectator, moreover, thought the man’s comments represented exactly the challenge facing scientific crowd-funders: the public may want the sexy end products of science, but do they have patience for the incremental procedures on which those results are founded?
Ang and his team, however, simply listened to the man politely, and then addressed each point he raised in turn. Perhaps they saw someone interested in the research, who wanted to get involved somehow, but didn’t exactly understand it. Someone who was, in other words, a member of their target audience.
Dr. Ang’s Microryza page, “Exploring an age-old question: can we demystify skin color?”, can be found at www.microryza.com/eascop. Project backers will receive access to an exclusive “Lab Notes” section of the page, which includes the latest updates on the team’s research. Donations, which must be pledged before Jan. 4, are tax-deductible.