Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Overselling genomics award #4: University of Western Ontario and Graham Thompson on honeybee altruism

In my blog I give out some snarky awards for things that annoy me including the Genomics by Press Release Award and the Adaptationomics Award and the Overselling Genomics Award. Sometimes I really want to give something an award but I am not sure what it should get. That is the case here. There is what I find to be a painful press release on "Selfish Genes" in honeybees put out by University of Western Ontario. This press release relates to a paper being published in Genetics. on QTL mapping in honeybees and searching for alleles/genes that suppress the reproductive activity in worker bees. This suppression is a form of altruistic behavior in a way and has been the subject of a good deal of research. Basically, the ended up mapping some of the suppression to a few regions of the genome.

The press release however, goes way way overboard in interpreting their results and claiming "New Discovery Proves 'Selfish Gene' Exists." They imply throughout the press release that prior work simply suggested that selfish genes were theoretically possible in this case and that now with their results they have been proven. For example they quote the lead author Graham Thompson:
This means that the 'selfish' gene does exist, not just in theory but in reality.
This is way beyond an overstatement. Their results are nice and interesting but they are part of a continuum of work on bees (and other selfish systems) and do not in any obvious way suddenly prove the existence of this selfish gene compared to prior work that they imply was just guesswork. I am personally baffled by the extent of this claim -- basically ignoring work by many others as well as work in a variety of systems outside of bees. They end the press release with the following:
"This basically provides a validation for a huge body of socio-biology," says Thompson, who adds the completion of Honey Bee Genome Project in 2006 was crucial to this discovery.
For that last statement, I am thus giving them my "Overselling genomics award" #4. But they easily could have gotten a few others.  

NOTE - I had changed the award to just U. Western Ontario and not including Thompson because it is the University that appears to be responsible for the press release not Thompson.  However, a commenter (Oliver) convinced me that if we want to clean up press releases we need to make the scientists involved in the story help make sure the press releases are clean, so I put Thompson back in.

Hat tip to T. Ryan Gregory for pointing this out. And you should check out his new Genomics by press release "award" at his blog Genomicron. I will probably be writing about the same story soon.


  1. Oops. Sorry I missed this Larry (although the time between when he wrote about it and when I posted my blog was pretty short ..). Larry also has some good links there including one to a discussion on RichardDawkins.Net here

  2. While stressing that I don't know anything about this particular case, and that these comments are about the issue in general, I'm not sure that your redaction of the researcher's name is necessarily the right thing to do, Jon. If other researchers don't hold their peers responsible for poor press releases that go out in their names, then where's the pressure for change? The people responsible for a poor press release probably couldn't care less what a blogger thinks -- but if the researcher they were writing about feels pressure from her peers, complains and insists on seeing future press releases then there may be some progress. In general, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect people to take responsibility for press releases about their work -- not least because if they do, there's a good chance press releases will get better.

  3. Excellent point Oliver. I guess I just felt bad for Thompson since I have dealt with press offices before and they do not always listen to the scientists involved in the story. That being said, I am going to unredact Thompson's name from the award ... in the hopes of pressuring scientists all over to keep an eye on their press releases.


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