By Meredith Salisbury
Some people collect matchbooks. Some collect stamps. Tom Schneider, tenured NIH research biologist, collects mistakes.
Ever since discovering that his professor’s DNA model was backward (what he called "left-handed DNA"), Schneider’s had what could be called an obsession with hunting down these rogue biological forms. "I just started noticing them," he says. Eventually he started a file, and it got so big that in February of 1996, he took it to the Web. Now, people around the world e-mail him to lobby for new entries to his hall of fame.
Schneider says tracking miscreant DNA is just a hobby — "it doesn’t get priority over papers." Still, for each entry he posts on his website, he requests permission to use the image, a time-consuming step. "Each one might take 10 minutes," he says, but with 341 cases on his page, he’s booked more than a few hours.
It turns out that even his DNA-free leisure time Scheider is consumed with sequences and opposites. On Friday nights he’s committed to contra dancing — a 200-year-old form of folk dance in which partners begin by lining up in two long strands and, following a sequence of moves, eventually dance with every other couple in the set.
Schneider’s Glen Echo, Md., contra friends don’t know about his vigilant left-handed DNA patrol. But it’s probably safe to assume he’s a fastidious dancer. "I see this as a paradigm for correcting errors in our society," he says of his crusade against molecular mistakes. "It’s very clear what the error is, and yet it’s propagated. I think that says a lot about how our society works."
We can’t speak for society, but as convicted offenders ourselves, Genome Technology and its sister publication, GenomeWeb, are going straight (er, right). As Schneider’s website points out, we were in good company — from Newsweek to Science, from Millennium to Sequenom. Maybe now we’ll have to hang out with the contra dancers.