Cloning of the Zucchini Opiate Receptor

The following article is from the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

by Lloyd Fricker, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York

This paper describes the cloning of the zucchini opiate receptor using an expression assay. We have undertaken this project for the following reasons:

1) Opiate receptors are important.
2) Cloning things is important.
3) Therefore, cloning the opiate receptor must be very important.

Our model system involves the zucchini, which avoids many of the ethical problems associated with using small defenseless animals for research, especially for studies involving pain. Vegetables are also cheaper than laboratory animals, and they taste better as well (1). We have previously demonstrated that zucchini contain functional receptors for opiates (2), so this was the vegetable of choice.

Materials and Methods

Zucchini were obtained from a local breeding facility and were transported back to the laboratory on ice. They were housed in the crisper section of the refrigerator until use. Mr. Potato Head was obtained from Toys-B-Us and assembled with the help of a 5 year old. All procedures were approved by the Institutional Squash Use Committee (ISUC).
Results and Discussion
Figure 1. The effect of morphine and naloxone on the hot plate induced jumping reflex in a zucchini. A: the normal jumping reflex demonstrated when an adult female Burpee brand zucchini is placed on a scalding hot surface, such as a Therm-O-Swirl that had been left on for several days. B: Injection of 10 mg/kg of morphine into the tail stem of the zucchini eliminates the jumping reflex. C: Injection of 10 mg/kg naloxone (an opiate antagonist) into the morphine-treated zucchini restores the jumping reflex.

When zucchini were subjected to the standard hot-plate test, they showed a normal jumping reflex (Figure 1, Panel A). Much to the demise of the unfortunate vegetable, injection of 10 mg/kg of morphine into the tail stem of the zucchini caused a dramatic decrease in the perception of pain, as well as instilling a false sense of serenity to the vegged-out zucchini (Figure 1, Panel B). Injection of 10 mg/kg naloxone (an opiate antagonist) rudely awakened the blissful vegetable to the cruel reality of the situation, with full restoration of the jumping reflex (Figure 1, Panel C).

In a search for an organism that has a jumping reflex but which is not responsive to morphine, we tested a variety of fruits and vegetables. Some, like milk, did not show a jumping reflex at all, while others (bananas, popcorn) showed a robust morphine-sensitive jumping reflex. During this screening, we found that potatoes showed a jumping reflex that was not responsive to morphine (not shown). To facilitate the expression cloning, we tested the highly expressive Mr. Potato Head, which is evolutionarily related to the Idaho potato (3). As shown in Figure 2, Mr. Potato Head showed a jumping reflex when tossed onto the same scalding hot surface as used for the zoned out zucchini in Figure 1.
Figure 2. The effect of morphine and naloxone on the hot plate induced jumping reflex in Mr. Potato Head. A: The normal jumping reflex when an adult male Mr. Potato Head (obtained from Toys-B-Us). B: Injection of 10 mg/kg of morphine i.p. (intra-potato). C: Injection of 10 mg/kg of naloxone i.p. into the morphine-treated toy.

A hefty dose of morphine did nothing to alter the jumping reflex of Mr. Potato Head, nor did it appear to alter the expression of fear caused by the hot surface (Figure 2, Panel B). Injection of 10 mg/kg of naloxone also had no influence on the jumping reflex of Mr. Potato Head (Figure 2, Panel C).

Taken together, these results indicate that Mr. Potato Head does not contain functional opiate receptors.

Figure 3. Standard zucchini library (volumes 62-65).

To clone the zucchini opiate receptor, we first created a zucchini cDNA library from RNA (actually, zRNA) isolated from the neuroinfundibular lateral geniculate moosel structure of the zucchini, which has been previously shown by autoradiography to contain large amounts of opiate receptors (2). The library was then made by doing all the things that one does when one makes a library. A portion of the library is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 4. Zucchini/Mr. Potato Head expression library.

The zucchini library was then transfected into Mr. Potato Head using a modification of the calcium phosphate method (the modification used NaCl in place of calcium phosphate, and ketchup in place of the glycerol). The zucchini/Mr. Potato Head library shows partial phenotype of both parent organisms, and tastes great either raw or deep fried. A portion of the library is shown in Figure 4.

The zucchini/Mr. Potato Head library was screened using an expression assay. Specifically, the change in "expression" upon painful stimulus, and the ability of morphine to attenuate this change, was tested for each clone. One positive clone was identified which did not respond to an extremely painful stimulus in the presence of morphine (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Representative (actually, the only) clone from the zucchini/Mr. Potato Head library which does not show a change in expression when subjected to a painful stimulus under the influence of morphine.

To confirm the morphine-induced insensitivity to pain, the unfortunate clone was dosed with 10 mg/kg morphine and then subjected to the blistering hot surface of the Therm-O-Swirl. In the presence of morphine, the poor clone lost all signs of a jumping reflex and is shown moments before bursting into flames (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Hot-plate test with positive clone from zucchini/Mr. Potato Head library.

To eliminate the possibility that this clone has simply lost the jumping reflex, rather than gaining the opiate receptor, the clone was tested in the absence of morphine. Without the drug, the zucchini/Mr. Potato Head clone showed a normal jumping reflex on the hot plate test (Figure 7, Panel A). Note the expression of fear on the clone. With 10 mg/kg morphine coursing through its veins, the blissed-out clone lost all concept of fear of hot surfaces, and did not display any survival instincts to escape from the hot surface (Figure 7, Panel B). Injection of naloxone fully restored the jumping reflex, and the apparent feeling of pain to the clone (Figure 7, Panel C). This is one unhappy clone!

The cDNA from the zucchini/Mr. Potato Head clone was isolated and sequenced, but since the actual order of the nucleotides is of interest only to our competitors, we have not shown the sequence. Go clone it yourself if you really want to know. We're holding this confidential until we get it published in a good journal, like Cell, Science, or Better Homes and Gardens.

img class="size-full wp-image-41649" title="450zucchini7" src="" alt="" width="450" height="256" />Figure 7. Panel A: This is a clone. Panel B: This is a clone on drugs (10 mg/kg morphine). Panel C: This is a clone on even more drugs (10 mg/kg naloxone, in addition to the morphine). Any questions?

Thanks to Lakshmi, Mike, Mark, Bruce, and Jim for helping arrange and photograph the zucchini late one night in the Herbert lab. This work was previously presented as a poster at a Society for Neuroscience meeting in 1986, and is also to be included in an upcoming book to be published by HMS Beagle.

Literature Cited

1. Actually, we made this up, and have not ever really tasted zucchini.
2. "Behavioral Effects of Opiates in Plants," L.D. Fricker, I. Patch-Lindberg, and G. Mendel, III, J. Ir. Res., July, 1986.
3. On the Origin of Toy Species: Evolution or Creation? Charles Darwin VII, Archaic Press, New York.

(Color image credit: Flickr user ilovebutter)


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 2001 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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