Saturday, March 16, 2013

Digging around in National Science Foundation "news" is mostly a lesson in science by press release

Last week I wrote about how the National Science Foundation was involved in a painful press release about microbial genomics and evolution: Ugg - story about gene transfer/evolution based on NSF press release has a NASA-esque smell.  Today after getting some emails from people about this I decided to look to see if this was unusual or just what NSF press releases tend to look like.

I went to this site: News - US National Science Foundation (NSF) and decided to look at the links for stories I might know something about.  Here are some of them - a mix of NSF Press Releases and Links to outside PRs.
Alas most of these have some issues - some more than others.  Going through them one by one

Untangling Life's Origins.  Link to an outside PR about work supported by NSF.  Not so bad - some painful stuff in the PR like the following:
  • “They are not the standard trees that people see in phylogenetic analysis,” he said. “In phylogenetic analysis, usually the tips of the trees, the leaves, are organisms or microbes. In these, they are entire biological systems.”
  • But overall reasonably tolerable compared to the others.
Home Toxic Home.  Link to an outside PR.  Filled with really painful stuff. Some examples
  • "Most organisms would die in the volcanic sulfur pools of Yellowstone and Mount Etna. Robust simple algae call it home, and their secrets to survival could advance human medicine and bioremediation. "  Everything could advance human medicine and just about any other topic if you stretch it.  And it is a big stretch to find any connections here.
  • "Michael Garavito, Michigan State University professor of biochemistry and molecular biology was part of a research team that revealed how primitive red algae use horizontal gene transfer, in essence stealing useful genes from other organisms to evolve and thrive in harsh environments. "  Ahh.  Back to the same general story that got me riled up to begin with.  This also has the fun "primitive" reference for algae which are not in any obvious way primitive. 
  • "The algae’s membrane proteins are biologically quite interesting because they’re receptors and transporters, the same classes of proteins that play key roles in energy metabolism and human immune response,” said Garavito. “This has applications in human medicine because virtually all of the important pathways that contribute to disease treatment involve membrane proteins." So let me get this straight.  The algae has membrane transporters and receptors.  And therefore it is relevant to studies of human disease because many diseases are due to problems in transporters and receptors.  So - what organism on the planet then would not be relevant?  Uggh. 
  • They then clarify "What makes the algae’s membrane proteins attractive as a model for humans is their robustness. Other traditional candidates, such as yeast, insect cell cultures and slime mold, are fragile. The algae give researchers extra time to manipulate and examine their membrane proteins."  Oh.  I see.  So nobody has ever thought of this before.  No work has ever been done on organisms that are "robust" as a model system.  Like - say - thermophiles?  Wouldn't that be cool (or hot) to work on.  
  • There is more. I will not cover it.
Genetic Study of House Dust Mites Demonstrates Reversible Evolution.  Outside PR that is just completely full of crap.
  • A few days ago I posted about this to Facebook and to Twitter.  
  • And it still riles me up.  Some lines to treasure:
  • In evolutionary biology, there is a deeply rooted supposition that you can't go home again: Once an organism has evolved specialized traits, it can't return to the lifestyle of its ancestors. 
How to Thrive in Battery Acid and Among Toxic Metals.  This is the specific PR that got me riled up to begin with.  Awful.

"True Grit" Erodes Assumptions About Evolution.  Actually this one seems OK.

While most of what I looked at that seemed painful was from outside groups - I wonder whether NSF does any screening of outside press releases before posting them to their News site.  Given how bad some of the NSFs press releases are I am not so sure how they deal with outside PR.  But why aren't they linking to actual news stories by real journalists?  Instead they simply link to PRs from groups supported by NSF.  Yuck.

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