Twisted tree of Life Award #13: Press release from U. Oslo on new protozoan


Wow.  Just got pointed to this press release Rare protozoan from sludge in Norwegian lake does not fit on main branches of tree of life (hat tip to Bill Hooker).  It is a long PR.  And it is riddled with many examples of evolutionary mumbo jumbo - each of which on their own could win a Twisted Tree of Life Award here.  And together, well, I am just going to give it one award - the Twisted Tree of Life Award #14.

Here are some statements that are, well, dubious, and/or painful.

  • Biologists all over the world have been eagerly awaiting the results of the genetic analysis of one of the world's smallest known species, hereafter called the protozoan, from a little lake 30 kilometer south of Oslo in Norway.
    • Wow - really?  All over the world?
    • And why not tell us what the F#&$# it is?  Where is the name of the organism?  WTF?
  • When researchers from the University of Oslo, Norway compared its genes with all other known species in the world, they saw that the protozoan did not fit on any of the main branches of the tree of life. The protozoan is not a fungus, alga, parasite, plant or animal.
    • That is right.  There are five main branches on the tree of life.  Fungi.  Alga.  Parasites.  Plants. And animals.  Uggh.
  • His research group studies tiny organisms hoping to find answers to large, biological questions within ecology and evolutionary biology, and works across such different fields as biology, genetics, bioinformatics, molecular biology and statistics
    • Yes, and I study tiny organisms to answer small questions.
  • Life on Earth can be divided up into two main groups of species, prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The prokaryote species, such as bacteria, are the simplest form of living organisms on Earth. 
    • Yup, two main groups.  As of 40 f3$*@# years ago.
  • The micro-organism is among the oldest, currently living eukaryote organisms we know of. It evolved around one billion years ago, plus or minus a few hundred million years.
    • OMG.  This is a MODERN ORGANISM.  It did not evolve a billion years ago.  It is no older than ANYTHING ELSE ON THE PLANET.  AAAAAARRRGH.
  • The tree of life can be divided into organisms with one or two flagella
    • What?
    • The tree of life can also be divided into organisms with one or two penises.  
  • Just like all other mammals, human sperm cells have only one flagellum. Therefore, humankind belongs to the same single flagellum group as fungi and amoebae.
    • I don't even know what to say here.
  • The protozoan from Ås has four flagella. The family it belongs to is somewhere between excavates, the oldest group with two flagella, and some amoebae, which is the oldest group with only one flagellum.
    • Wow - no prior description of the major groups of eukaryotes and now we use excavates (kind of technical) and amoebae (not technical).  Translation error?
    • But even w/ translation issues still very strange.
  • Were we to reconstruct the oldest, eukaryote cell in the world, we believe it would resemble our species. To calculate how much our species has changed since primordial times, we have to compare its genes with its nearest relatives, amoebae and excavates," says Shalchian-Tabrizi.
    • What?  Their species has been around since primordial times?  What?  That is one really old cell. 
  • The protozoan lives off algae, but the researchers still do not know what eats the protozoan. 
    • Why does something have to eat it?
  • The protozoan was discovered as early as 1865, but it is only now that, thanks to very advanced genetic analyses, researchers understand how important the species is to the history of life on Earth
    • Very advanced?  Like, what? Sequencing?  
  • The problem is that DNA sequences change a lot over time. Parts of the DNA may have been wiped away during the passing of the years. Since the protozoan is a very old species, an extra large amount of gene information is required
    • What?  Since it is old they need more DNA? What?
I could go on and on.  I won't.  But I will say one last thing that drives me crazy.  There is no paper attached to the press release in any way I can tell.  So all we are left with is this very very very very bad PR.  Ugh.

27 comments:

  1. "The tree of life can be divided into organisms with one or two flagella. Just like all other mammals, human sperm cells have only one flagellum. Therefore, humankind belongs to the same single flagellum group as fungi and amoebae."

    This seems like a reasonable explanation of Unikonta vs. Bikonta to me. What am I missing?

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  2. Well, my penis comment was over the top there but the tree of life is NOT divided into unikonts and bikonts. Certainly Cavalier-Smith has argued (as have some others) that you might be able to divide eukaryotes into unikonts and bikonts but most of those folks do allow for the existence of bacteria and archaea. And many, if not most, as far as I know do not consider unikonts and bikonts to be the main split in eukaryotes.

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  3. Plus I should add - the unikont -bikont split is apparently no longer considered correct even by Cavalier Smith http://www.biology-direct.com/content/5/1/7

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  4. Awhile ago I heard an account of a Cavalier-Smith lecture where the guy changed his mind *in the middle of his talk*. Which is actually awesome, but still funny.

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  5. Took a few clicks but I think this is the paper: http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/01/06/molbev.mss001

    I'd send you a pdf but don't have access.

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    1. I read the original press release in Norwegian (http://www.apollon.uio.no/artikler/2012/urdyret.html) and it must be that paper. The untranslated release talked about "Collodictyon".

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    2. Dare I ask Andreas - is the Norwegian as painful as the English version?

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    3. I'd send you a pdf but don't have access

      I have a PDF copy; email me at: cbandea@cdc.gov

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  6. I want to know if the paper is as bad as the press release. Surely it isn't...!

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    1. It can't be with those authors - they all generally do interesting things

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  8. The main problem with this "press release" is that it is not a press release and was never inteded as one either. It's an interview of the group that works on Collodyction made by a journalist from the Apollon magazine with little knowledge about biology, and not a press release prepared by the scientists who published the Collodyction paper (in MBE; I can send it to you if you want to read it). The Apollon magazine that printed the interview is a small popular science magazine read by all kinds of people at the University of Oslo, from students and employees in the administration to scientific staff. Sadly this kind of article is often the result when journalists without in-depth knowledge about biology tries to make unfamiliar scientific content "accessible" to a broad non-scientific audience and reflects. Among the things that are considered to difficult for a non-scientific audience are names like "Collodyction", unikots and bikonts. (Actually I'm kind of surprised that the reference to excavates made it to print.)

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    1. I'm guessing that "excavates" made it to print because it is also a fairly common English verb -- it passed the spellcheck test.

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    2. "Excvates" was also used in the original Norwegian print, it does not resemble any Norwegian word at all.

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  9. Anders - thanks for the clarification.

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  12. The original source doesn't really matter. Fact is, ScienceDaily copied and reproduced the article without recognizing how bad it was.

    Last Monday I went to a talk on Effectively Communicating Your Science. As usual, it was mostly science journalists lecturing scientists about how to publicize science correctly.

    I see very little evidence that science journalists are doing a better job than scientists. I think scientists should go to their meetings and lecture them about effective science communication.

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    1. Here is another take on this article: http://www.livescience.com/19955-ancient-protist-kingdom.html

      The problem here is with the scientists, not so much with the writer Jennifer Welsh. According to Kamran Shalchian-Tabrizi, the ‘senior scientist’ on the paper, the organism they report “evolved around one billion years ago, plus or minus a few hundred million years”, which “gives us a better understanding of what early life on Earth looked like” (emphasis mine).

      Apparently, Shalchian-Tabrizi has a different perspective than most other scientists about when life started kicking on Earth. Maybe he can tell us more about it!

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    2. Well, the scientists definitely had some strange statements. But the writers also bear a responsibility to check details and not just take the scientists at their word. And Welsh's article has some issues (not as many as the one I linked to).

      For example

      " If that's true, they would be some of the oldest eukaryotes, giving rise to all other eukaryotes, including humans."

      That is just wrong. No living organisms are older than any others. And no modern organisms gave rise to all other eukaryotes.

      And

      " It's an organism with membrane-bound internal structures, called a eukaryote, but genetically it isn't an animal, plant, fungi, algae or protist (the five main groups of eukayotes). "

      These are not the main groups of eukaryotes known today.

      So she did not do a good job here ...

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    3. …writers also bear a responsibility to check details and not just take the scientists at their word.

      You are right, which brings us to the issue raised by Laurence A. Moran (above), that of the need to improve the working relationship between scientists and science journalists.

      It would make sense that, before publishing, science writers get feedback on all their stories from ‘third party’ consulting scientists, preferably from ones who have broad and solid understanding of science. In exchange, the scientists are acknowledged for their contribution, or in cases where their contribution is substantial even become coauthors.

      In the process, the scientists would improve their science writing skills, and increase their appreciation for it; not to mention, that when their own ‘big discovery’ comes along, they are already connected!

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    4. With respect to university press releases my solution is ...

      All authors of the paper in question have to agree to the content of the press release and there should be a statement at the bottom of the press release naming each author and saying that they specifically approve the content.

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    5. This is worth to be repeated, in bold:

      All authors of the paper in question have to agree to the content of the press release and there should be a statement at the bottom of the press release naming each author and saying that they specifically approve the content.

      And, this should be highly recommended also for interview articles on specific papers; maybe a notch more relaxed, but still. I have a hint that some of the authors of the paper under discussion here, I’m referring specifically to Dr. Keeling, whose work I’m relatively familiar with, are not happy with quality of science communication associated with their paper.

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    6. I might be wrong, but I think the vast majority of scientists and science writers would agree with the solution proposed by Larry (see above) on how to fix the increasing flow of deceiving press releases and misleading science communications.

      Also, similar to Jonathan (see above) and Larry, dozens of other Bloggers make highly significant contributions to both science and science communication.

      However, as popular as some Blogs and Bloggers are, their individual reach and impact, even when overlapping, only goes so far, leaving the gate of ugly science wide open.

      Will this gate eventually close? Obviously, that’s written in the fiber of science, but Bloggers have the opportunity to speed up the process at a rate of: what about right now!

      While Bloggers’ should maintain their individual flavors and takes, which makes blogging so interesting and addictive, it would make sense to join forces in drafting:

      (1) codes of ‘conduct‘ for both scientists and science writers, for whatever the ‘conduct’ is, such as writing press releases and interview-based articles.

      (2) principles of basic ‘sciences’, whatever the ‘sciences’ of interest might be (e.g. Evolution, Big Bang, Tree of Life, Gravity, RNA interference, etc.).

      These ‘codes’ and ‘principles’ would be used as reference by both, science writers and scientists, and their followers. To give a specific example, it makes no sense, whatsoever, that after half of century since Crick proposed his hypothetical Central Dogma, which should be among the ABCs of Molecular Biology, hundreds of authors of science textbooks and articles, and even more students who follow their teachings, are not sure what it means?

      It would be great if Larry and Jonathan, together with their many experienced colleague Bloggers, take the initiative in setting up this Science Open Project. I think many scientists, science writers, and science enthusiasts will join in. And, please, make a list of those who join and support such a sensible and worthy project, and also a list of those who don’t; just leaving this last category out as an anonymous amorphous group might be just what they want in order to maintain the status quo of confusion and ugly science in which they can flourish.

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  13. I don't mean to be rude, but I find this post really funny. I actually LOL-ed, particularly at your responses to the excerpts.

    Maybe you can consider doing some stand-up comedy on the side. :)

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