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Just living is like getting irradiated. Radiation is an oxidizing agent. You're adding four electrons to oxygen to make water, you add them one at a time, you make superoxide and hydrogen peroxide and hydroxyl radicals, which are the substances you get from radiation. If the DNA gets damage, then repair enzymes, which are always cruising along the DNA looking for trouble, take out the damaged product--this oxidized base--and they repair it. Well, the oxidized base goes into the urine, and we've learned how to fish all these things out of urine and ask how much damage a human gets per day or how much damage a rat gets per day. The higher your metabolic rate, the more damage, so a mouse is battering up its DNA at a higher rate than the rat, the rat higher than the monkey, the monkey higher than a human--which fits with lifespan and the cancer rate. So we're all excited about oxidative damage and aging and all these degenerative diseases associated with aging.
The epidemiologists are finding that antioxidants are some of the ingredients in fruits and vegetables. If people don't eat their veggies then they are in trouble. My main interest now is to find what's the optimum level of all these things. Maybe the optimum level is much more than the RDA. We don't know that but right now people aren't even getting the RDA, the Recommended Daily Allowance.
Reason: Can people take vitamin pills?
Ames: Well, the nutrition people don't like that. They say you should be told to eat balanced diets. Two fruits and three vegetables per day at least. On the other hand, only 10 percent of the population are eating two fruits and three vegetables a day. So I'm coming to the conclusion that people should be taking one-a-day pills. Certainly pregnant women and poorly nourished people and anybody of childbearing age and older people.
Reason: Activists are very suspicious of you.
Ames: All I can say is I've done good science. In part, I think my talent in this area is I've always been a bit of a generalist and being a generalist is hard, because there's so much specialized knowledge. To be a successful generalist one has to know the best people in each field so that you can call them up on the phone and ask them questions and get feedback on ideas.
I've gotten very suspicious of a lot of the activists because I just feel that they are not good problem solvers. If you push in the wrong direction, then you're counterproductive. If we are spending $125 billion a year on EPA regulation, and it's not effective, that kills people, because it diverts resources from important things and it takes money that could be used for starting new companies and generating wealth and generating money for science.
I'm not saying you shouldn't have rules. You don't want every chemical company dumping its garbage out the back door. But what we're telling companies is, Well, air is free and water is free, but be good guys, don't pollute. That isn't how capitalism works. You want to have an incentive in there, so what we should be doing is charging people to pollute. Any time anybody wants to pollute--whether you drive your car or put a log in your fireplace--you should have to pay for pollution cost. Then there are incentives to figure out how to make cars that put out less pollution.
Reason: Within the academic research community, how do people look at people who have gotten involved in public policy debates?
Ames: Most scientists tend to steer away from that. You get promoted and you get recognized by your peers, you get to go to international conferences and all that. by doing good science. And if you make a mistake, then everybody jumps on you. There's no incentive for scientists to be getting involved in policy, though people do it when they feel a responsibility.
Reason: Are there incentives not to do it?
Ames: Yes, I would say probably so. If I spent 5 percent of my time talking to you or talking to Omni or other people, then it's time I'm not spending working on what causes aging and maybe I'm better off being in a lab trying to do that.
Reason: Do you see yourself at this point as something of a popularizer as well as a researcher?
Ames: Yes. a little bit. I feel it's partly my duty. I'd really like to prevent cancer. The best way to go about it is prevention rather than trying to find a cure for cancer, because that's so elusive. though we need to work on that. too...
Reason: You mean on treating it?
Ames: Yes. I'm much more interested in preventing cancer. Then we have to get out to the public what's important. If you tell them about trivia all the time, they get completely confused, and it's counterproductive. I just think all this business of organic food is nonsense basically. We should be eating more fruits and vegetables, so the main way to do that is to make them cheaper. Anything that makes fruits and vegetables more expensive may increase cancer.
Reason: Do you think there might be legitimate concem for worker exposure?
Ames: Worker exposure is very different. I think you want strict rules, because there people can get very high doses. We were having some guy paint our house. He was up on a ladder with a spray can, spraying the house. I said. "Hey, you have to wear a mask. You just can't be in a cloud of that. Don't you know you shouldn't be breathing all that stuff?"