Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Water memory has forgotten it was discredited.

Last summer I was one of only a few incredibly lucky young researchers to attend The 60th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (3rd Interdisciplinary) on the shores of Lake Konstanz (Bodensee), Germany.  I blogged at the time on about my sheer awe of those whose presence I was in.  I was a PhD student at that time, half way through writing my thesis.

Today I’m no more cynical, no more skeptical, no more bitter. If anything I’m more “inspired by science” than I was then.  Today’s blog, however, takes on a different guise.  Those described below are thoughts I had at the time and upon reflection, perhaps I should have been a little more vocal and a little less respectful.  A little “abuse of politeness” perhaps.  But they are Nobel Laureates after all.

I’m going to rant about the pseudo-science presented by the Nobel Laureate, Prof. Luc Montagnier of the Institut Pasteur, Paris.  Montagnier led the team that identified HIV in the early ‘80s and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 along with his colleague Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (who continues to do great work in AIDS research, charity and activism; her own lecture was a passionate tour de force).  I’m not disputing the award (though some did at the time, see bio in the above link) but I am highlighting the idiocy and downright recklessness of his presentation at the conference.

His lecture (available here, which I urge you to watch) begins with a wee bit of chat about DNA and its role in genetic memory and quickly descends into a lecture about water memory (though he doesn’t use this term).  He says, “water is not only a solvent, it’s also a polymer which could interact with DNA, help DNA and also information from DNA to water can exist through the regime, the emission of very low electromagnetic waves.”

Now here a minute!  Thinks I (respectfully).  He’s short of breath and sweating a little, but that could be the occasion and the lights...  Or maybe he’s thinking of the homoeopathy pay-cheque.  Maybe he’s on a dare.  Given present company, I let him continue, though I shifted in my seat very deliberately and scanned the audience.  These are the scientists of the future as well as the assembled media (you'll spot them in the video wearing yellow lanyards, frantically typing) who might believe what this guy is saying.

He goes on to discuss an experiment where he found that certain (high) dilutions of DNA can emit low frequency electromagnetic waves.  Check the Powerpoint slide at 6:48 in the link above.  Yes, he’s going to try to prove the existence of water memory to an audience of 60 Nobel Laureates and 250 young physicians, chemists and physicists.

He gets on to a ‘preliminary theoretical reasoning’.  Though he does say he wants to give physicists the facts so they can work on the explanation.  No shit.

"Water molecules interact strongly with DNA and stabilise it," true – this is called solvation.

"... and form large aggregates through hydrogen bonds to surrounding water molecules," true – these are often referred to as solvation shells.

"Outside influence of electromagnetic waves (background radiation, solar wind, lightning, human activites...) can then stabilise the structures of these aggregates," dubious at best – any organisation of the hygrogen-bonded networks of water molecules is too short-lived. See: M. L. Cowan et al., Nature 2005, 434, 199.“Our results highlight the efficiency of energy redistribution within the hydrogen-bonded network, and that liquid water essentially loses the memory of persistent correlations in its structure within 50 fs”.

Another theory he puts forward is that these aggregates are stabilised by nanobubbles created through shakin’ it baby!  *cough* druid *cough*.  OK, the second theory is because he’s clearly on the payroll of a homoeopathy company (wouldn’t be the first time, in fact, this stinks of Benveniste – not fraud, but a fostered and then cherished delusion). Rather than attempt the dilution of this delusion, which could have the unwanted effect of empowering its message, I’ll just attempt to address the first theory.

DNA consists of hydrophobic and hydrophilic regions.  When we look at the double helical structure of DNA the hydrophilic region, a polyanionic ‘phosphate backbone’, is on the outside.  This gives rise to the high solubility of the DNA solute in water.  Any solvent can be considered to be solvating itself – solvent molecules surround a solute and more distance solvent molecules, in turn, solvate the inner solvent shell.  This is often the subject of ‘proton transport’ studies; if you line up some water molecules, interacting through hydrogen bond, and take a hydrogen cation (proton) off one end, a proton can be picked up by a water molecule at the other end (here’s a good paper from a group at the University of Edinburgh on proton transport: L. M. S. Shephard and C. A. Morrison, J. Phys. Chem. B, 2010, 114, 7047). The process is very rapid, owing to the dynamic nature of the system.

Montagnier is saying these solvation shells persist after the removal of the solute molecule, given stabilisation by external electromagnetic waves.  And for some reason he thinks this has something to do with DNA.  Really if it were possible it would be a property of the water itself.  He should read some physical chemistry papers on water, which would prove he’s wrong.  Or put any other molecule in his system and do the same test, at least to show that it’s not the DNA that’s giving these signals.  But then, I suppose, then there’s no link to ten-to-the-power-of-your-age-in-dog-years dilutions of St. John’s Wart and Echinchinyay-ho.

He describes an experiment where they take a sequence of DNA of 104 base pairs, and dilutes.  Protects from outside electromagnetic fields.  Injects a 7Hz frequency and places the dilution of DNA solution "next to"  a vial of water (presumably pure) "up to 10 cm away".  They then wait 18 hours, to get a usable signal:noise ratio.  They then take the water and dilute it again and find "positive signals" – so there has been a transmission from one solution to the other of electromagnetic waves containing the DNA information.  WOW - take that with a quarryful of salt.  Then he shows a picture of DNA resonance signals in water.

“For some short sequences of DNA, we can transfer the information into water...  We should speak with physicist to explain this of course, but it’s clear that water is not simply a solvent.  It is much more in our life.”  Note the chatter from the audience at this point of the video...

He closed the lecture by spouting some more laughable bullshit.

One of the best conversations I had at the meeting was with Prof. Edmond Fischer on a boat trip to the Island of Mainau, where my profile picture was taken.  I saw he was taking a photo of his wife with another Nobel Laureate and his wife, so I asked if he’d like to be in it and I’d take it for him.  So I took the photo and we began to talk about science.

Then he asked the question I’d been dying to answer: “As a young researcher, what do you think of this Montagnier guy?”  I hesitated, not wanting to seem disrespectful.  He said, “It’s just a few of the other laureates and I have been discussing his crazy water memory claims and we’re worried some of you young-uns would be taking it to heart.”

I said, “Well his results are very strange and I can’t see any logic in his conclusions.  I’ve discussed it with a few other young researchers and I’m hopeful most of us read between the lines and didn’t believe it.”

“That’s a relief,” said Fischer, “The man’s clearly gone nuts.”

“Homoeopathy,” I said.

He nodded, “on someone’s payroll I reckon.”

Normally I’d have bought Fischer and his companions a round of drinks at this point, but to my concurrent dismay and glee, drinks were free.