Dr. Kirk Wilhelmsen is an enthusiastic tour guide as he shows his visitors around the various labs where he works in Emeryville. He shuffles through the corridors in fits and starts, stopping every now and again to explain the groundbreaking work being done by his colleagues. He speaks with a deliberate air of whimsy reminiscent of other smart guys like Carl Sagan, often beginning his sentences with the conclusive phrase, "It turns out that..." (While he sounds like Carl Sagan, he looks more like Stephen King.)
"This is Steve McIntire's lab," he says, pushing open the door, heading directly to a nearby microscope. "His group studies C Elegans -- it's a barely visible soil worm. These soil worms are rather phenomenal," he says, the volume of his voice rising slightly. "Every one of them is identical."
On the slide under the microscope, the translucent micro-worms don't seem obviously impressive, but Wilhelmsen is quick to explain their significance. "They're very simple organisms, and you study the genetics [by] how these organisms behave," he explains. "For instance, it turns out that you can isolate the mutant worms that don't get drunk with alcohol."
Mutant lab worms aren't the only critters in the 75,000-square-foot research space inside the two-year-old Emery Station building who are getting soused. Down the hall from the worms, fruit flies residing in glass cylinders are exposed to vaporized alcohol. In earlier experiments, scientists in the lab discovered that some fruit flies can fly under the influence, while others pass out. It turns out that the alcohol-sensitive flies possess something that cheeky researchers label "the cheap date gene."
Upstairs, genetic tinkerers have bred mutant mice lacking an enzyme labeled PKC, the absence of which enhances the effect of alcohol on a particular molecular receptor in the brain associated with inhibition. It turns out that these mutant mice are 75 percent less likely to want a drink than their normal brethren.
If there seems to be a theme running through all of this research, there is: The scientists laboring in this lab are trying to find a cure for alcoholism, and much of their work is centered around the fact that people who demonstrate an early tolerance for alcohol -- the ones who are left standing after the kegger in college -- are more likely to become alkies down the road than their passed-out companions.
Lightweights, you see, tend to get sick when they drink too much and therefore tend to avoid repetitive tokes from beer bongs. That's why the mutant mice didn't drink as much as the normal ones -- they were bred to be extra-sensitive to alcohol.
Back in Wilhelmsen's lab, the genetics expert is pointing out other tools of the alcoholism research trade like a machine that slices and dices DNA extracted from blood samples of alcoholics. For the past five years, Wilhelmsen and his team have been gathering blood and personal information from hundreds of alcoholics and their relatives. He's optimistic that his study will ultimately yield major scientific breakthroughs.
"The biggest jackpot," Wilhelmsen gleams, "would be able to figure out what it is about alcoholism that is inherited as well as find the gene for it. [We know that] there is something that is hereditary [about alcoholism], but we don't know exactly what it is. Is it the ability to learn to like alcohol? Is it the ability to develop a craving for alcohol? There are lots of possibilities. We're not only trying to figure out where the genes are that lead to predisposition, we're trying to figure out what elements of alcoholism are caused by these genes."
"I'm fully expecting," Wilhelmsen adds with a measure of self-satisfaction, "to redefine alcoholism based on the underlying biological process and what it is about alcoholism that's inherited. If there's a gene that's involved, there's a molecule that is involved, and a drug that can be developed for that."
Wait. A drug that could rid alcoholics of the insatiable craving that causes them to turn their livers into liverwurst and call their exes at 3 a.m.? Not only do these researchers think it's possible, so does the state of California. In 1998, the state authorized funding that the lab's director describes as a "Manhattan Project" for alcohol research, to the tune of $143 million. And if that sounds fantastic, get this: The man who made this newfangled effort to nuke alcoholism possible is none other than Central Valley wine tycoon Ernest Gallo.IIf it would seem unusual for any vintner to be mounting an ambitious research project into the causes and treatment of alcoholism, Ernest Gallo is an especially unlikely benefactor.
Ernest and his brother, Julio Gallo, became big-time wine retailers in the mid-'50s when they switched their marketing focus from table wines to fortified wines that have a twenty percent alcohol content. Their first big seller was Thunderbird, a combination of white port and lemon juice, which quickly caught on in African-American communities like Oakland, where consumers previously used to mix lemon with their port to cut the acidity.
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