Posts Tagged science writing

Wary of a cure for the common cold

Yesterday’s U of Maryland Science paper about the genomes of common cold viruses tempted reporters and editors into writing some over-enthusiastic headlines and leads about “curing the common cold”.
Hey – it’s just a bunch of genomes!

The press release didn’t seem too overblown though.
The researchers found that human rhinoviruses are organized into about 15 small groups that come from distant ancestors. The discovery of these multiple groups explains why a “one drug fits all” approach for anti-viral agents does not work.”

And Nick Wade (NYT) was appropriately gloomy about the translational aspects:

“Because colds are mostly a minor nuisance, drug developers say, people would not be likely to pay for expensive drugs. And it would be hard to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a drug with any serious downside for so mild a disease.”

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Not junk DNA, Zimmer says

Book author and Discover blogger Carl Zimmer criticizes those who wrote about a recent Science paper, saying essentially: “Enhancers aren’t junk DNA, and nobody who knows what enhancers are ever thought so.”

They took their cue from the headline of the press release. Oops.

An enhancer is essentially a control button on the DNA determining when a certain gene gets turned on or not. Most of the time, scientists find enhancers somewhere near their favorite gene, while trying to figure out what pieces of DNA can account for where and when it gets turned on.

Junk is a word that more accurately describes a pseudogene (it looks like a gene, but it doesn’t work anymore) or a repeating element (debris from a kind of internal virus), not an enhancer.

In this recent case, it seems they found the enhancer first, without knowing what gene it controls. More precisely, they found it by computer, comparing human and monkey DNA to find sequences that were highly conserved in vertebrates but had rapidly evolved in the transition from monkey to human.

This particular piece DNA makes embryos turn blue in interesting places. Evo-devo coolness.

Whoever wrote the press release (at Yale, even) called the enhancer junk, and the scientists who did the work let it go by. Perhaps they figured that something inexact was OK if it got some attention. Or maybe they thought people would understand “once thought of as junk DNA” as meaning decades ago rather than months ago.

Having people misunderstand something in a way you didn’t anticipate is a typical problem faced by a science writer!

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