Mukherjee’s controversial piece on epigenetics #Drama

The scientific community is in uproar over Siddhartha Mukherjee’s latest piece for the New Yorker titled: Same but Different (you may know him from his novel Emperor of all maladies: a biography of cancer). His article highlights the study of epigenetics, and how recent findings may blur the line between nature and nurture. So why is the scientific community outraged? Vox explains:

 

Here’s the beef scientists have with Mukherjee and the New Yorker

The article is the type of piece the New Yorker usually is very good at: diving deep into a crevice of science and connecting it to veins of either history, politics, or the poetry of everyday life.

Mukherjee starts off with a personal tale. His mother and aunt are identical twins, and he muses on how their life experiences made them different people later on. He then connects this personal mystery with other mysteries in nature: Why are two ants genetically near identical but one is a worker and one is a boss?

In the story, what links these mysteries is the science of epigenetics, which, basically, explores how the environment can leave a lasting mark1 on how our genes work.

DNA is the instruction manual for life. So epigenetics may determine how likely those instructions are to be read. Understanding epigenetics is important because it could help us understand how we become more susceptible to disease (or not) over our lifetimes. And there’s some not-yet-conclusive evidence that epigenetic information is inheritable. As Vox’s Susannah Locke has explained, epigenetics means a person may pass on genes as well as experiences to a child.

But the article seems to have hit a nerve with some researchers who feel “epigenetics” has become a buzzword that’s distorting the science.

What Mukherjee (mainly) gets wrong, according to the scientists, is his explanation of how this process is thought to work. Mukherjee’s explanation is anchored in a discussion of histones, which are tiny proteins that act as a kind of a scaffolding for DNA. He leans heavily on the work of David Allis, a researcher at Rockefeller University, who has foundthese histones open and close specific sections of DNA, which he says changes the output of the genes.

“The coils of DNA seemed to open and close in response to histone modifications — inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, like life,” Mukherjee writes.

Next, Mukherjee notes (more vaguely) that scientists have found “other systems, too, that could scratch different kinds of code on the genome.”

There are two main points the scientists are clamoring over.

One is that they say Allis’s theory that histones actually change the output of genes is far from proven. In a second post on Coyne’s blog, Greally and Mark Ptashne, a biologist at Sloan Kettering, write, “there is no evidence that coiling and uncoiling of DNA has a causal effect on gene activity.”

The second is the critics say those glossed-over “other systems” are actually the prevailing theory on how it all works, and should be at least discussed at greater length.

The big, overarching, concept Mukherjee missed is “transcription factors,” which are proteins that can turn specific genes on and off. It’s these factors that scientists say should be the main focus of the explanation of how our genes are differentiated. And despite decades of research on them, transcription factors are hardly mentioned at all in the piece.

Steve Henikoff, a molecular biologist, writes on Coyne’s blog:

Mukherjee seemed not to realize that transcription factors occupy the top of the hierarchy of epigenetic information, that this has been widely accepted in the broader chromatin [i.e. DNA] field, and that histone modifications at most act as cogs in the machinery that enforces the often complex programs specified by the binding of transcription factors.

(To note: The scientists have other concerns with the piece. You can read more about those here.)

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Ben Carson has traded in his #SCIENCE credentials for ANTI-SCIENCE credentials. And become the punchline for a neurosurgeon joke…

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You might assume that a famous neurosurgeon would be well informed on medical and scientific topics. But if you assume this about potential Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson, you would be horribly wrong. Check out previous CauseScience posts featuring anti-science statements from Ben Carson.

A terrific article this week in The New Yorker offers an in-depth analysis of recent anti-science delusions from Ben Carson written by Lawrence Krauss (Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University). Carson’s anti-science statements range from questioning the science behind the Big Bang theory, to attributing the theory of evolution to satan. See the full article for a summary of Carson’s statements, as well as why they are more than just anti-science.

Many people assume that, as a successful surgeon, he (Carson) has a solid knowledge of technical, medical, and scientific issues.

It is one thing to simply assert that you don’t choose to believe the science, in spite of a mountain of data supporting it. It’s another to mask your ignorance in such a disingenuous way, by using pseudo-scientific, emotion-laden arguments and trading on your professional credentials. Surely this quality, which reflects either self-delusion or, worse still, a willingness to intentionally deceive others, is of great concern when someone is vying for control of the nuclear red button.

It appears that Ben Carson is using tired anti-science talking points to support his twisted religious view of the world, proving that he has either lost touch with science, or is choosing to part ways with science. For more actual science surrounding the Big Bang Theory and thermodynamics, check out this great RadioLab – Ben Carson could definitely benefit from listening to it!

Carson’s recent anti-science statements along with anti-muslim comments from Carson, have led to many jokes, be sure not to miss this hilarious Borowitz Report (also in the New Yorker)!!

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Yikes! David Remnick breaks down Vandana Shiva’s criticism of Michael Spector’s New Yorker article @GeneticLiteracy

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CauseScience previously posted the terrific New Yorker article by Michael Specter profiling anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva, and her science denialism. The Genetic Literacy Project has continued to follow this story, and the scathing response from Shiva and her followers, and have now posted an amazing rebuttal to Shiva’s response from New Yorker editor David Remnick. If you enjoy a logical, well-reasoned point-by-point rebuttal, check it out! 

Just a sample of Remnick’s response:

One hardly needs to hold a Ph.D. in physics to become an effective environmental activist, as you have demonstrated. Yet, when a prominent figure, such as yourself, is described for decades—in interviews, on web sites, in award citations, and on many of your own book jackets, as having been “one of India’s leading physicists” it seems fair to ask whether or not you ever worked as one.

It is fine to express anti-GMO viewpoints, but when misleading statements, false science, and conspiracy theories are your evidence, expect them to be called out. Thanks to the Genetic Literacy Project for watching this and posting about it!