WESTMINSTER — Bill Long likes to tell fish stories, but his aren't tales about large-mouth bass caught on the river.
The type of fish he revels in have a mythological name -- chimera -- and should be mythological creatures. But they're as real as the algae which grow along the sides oftheir tank on the first floor of Lewis Hall at Western Maryland College.
"I made these fish," Long says, with the grin of a proud father.
Through his lab magic, the developmental biologist and WMC biologyprofessor has created zebra fish which are amalgams of many elements, having four to 40 parents.
Like many a fisherman, Long likes to show pictures of his prizes. From a drawer in his wooden desk he pulls a stack of color snapshots, then flips through the photos of albinofish.
Every fish has an unusual spot of pigment, each dot in a different area. Some have one black eye, others a black spot near theirfins or tails.
"A chimera is an animal assembled from parts of other animals, and sometimes bacteria and viruses," Long explains.
He uses a tiny glass tube to suck hundreds of cells from the eggs of many different zebra fish. Then he uses the tube to plant the cells inthe host fish embryo, which is smaller than the head of a pin.
Heremoves the custom-made fish from the petri dish in which he performed the operation to another dish where it can heal.
To achieve different color schemes, he decides where he wants a spot of pigment to be, then genetically manipulates cells to achieve his aim -- fashioning a paint-by-numbers genetic portrait. Experiments like Long's help in the study of how genes control development in cells. As of September, he had made several hundred chimera at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology biology lab, where he and five other scientists are doing most of their research.
Long became a research associate at MIT last summer.
"The appointment gives me a title, and in case I blow myself up or inject myself with foreign genes, I'm covered (by MIT's insurance)," he says with a chuckle. "But there is no money involved and no official duties."
Fifty of the MIT chimera were ready to spawn in November, and Long was fascinated to see the genetic characteristics of the offspring of his homemade fish.
"They will allowme to isolate into a test tube genes that are of developmental interest," he says.
Long manufactures fish in smaller quantities at WMC, a rare feat among small, teaching-oriented, liberal-arts colleges.
"This work is allowing us to discover previously unknown details about the actions of the pigment cells in these embryos," Long says. "What we do with pigment cells will serve as a model for what we do with genes in other organs in the body, such as the brain and the heart.
At MIT, Long finds it exhilarating working on the same floor as a scientist regarded as a national treasure in Japan.
"It's a pretty brainy group up there," he says. "It's nice to have a Nobel laureate come by and ask what you're doing. It's
'big science' in every way you can imagine."
In the heady atmosphere of big science, competition is fierce, with labs vying with one another for discoveries.
Long and an associate worked diligently to have a paper on their pilot study published by a scientific journal in December. With that credential established, they will approach the National Science Foundation for a substantial grant.
Last summer, Long received an NSF grant of $30,002 for the electron microscopy he conducts in Lewis Hall and for his four-day trip to MIT about once a month.
"It's very concentrated work. We get to the lab early in the morning and work tilllate at night," Long says. "The project is exciting scientifically and medically. In fact, the NSF has said that this work must be supported, that this job has to be done for the good of science and society.
"It's important to me to be in a situation that others see as soimportant. My science in the past has been what I believe to be verygood, but it was not at the center of things."
One couldn't get much more central to life than the work Long and his associates are doing in Cambridge, Mass.
"We are investigating the basic genetic instructions that put traits in their place," Long says.
Their work is intended to reveal how humans and fish are made and how they function.
Medical application enters when scientists examine genetic malfunctions and apply them to people. Long hopes to assess an individual's susceptibility to a genetic disease, allowing doctors to better treat and prevent diseases and abnormalities.
Gene therapy -- the insertion of a normal gene into abnormal cells to alleviate problems caused by a defective gene -- is a technique being developed around the world. One example of basic genetic instructions gone awry is a birth defect such as Down's syndrome.
The 1990 purchase of an electron microscope enables Long to do some of the MIT work -- including fish-making -- at Western Maryland. In October, he made 10 chimera in his Lewis Hall lab, with nine students watching.