The media loves to tout scientific breakthroughs, and few are as toutable – and in turn, have been as touted – as CRISPR. This method of targeted DNA excision was discovered in bacteria, which use it as an adaptive immune system to combat reinfection with a previously encountered virus.
Shouldn't the editors at a Nature journal know better than to have published an incorrect paper in the first place?
It is cool on so many levels: not only is the basic function fascinating, reminding us that we still have more to discover about even simple organisms that we thought we knew so well, but the ability it grants us to remove and replace any DNA of interest has almost limitless applications in both the lab and the clinic. As if that didn't make it sexy enough, add in a bicoastal, male-female, very public and relatively ugly patent battle, and the CRISPR story is irresistible.
And then last summer, a bombshell dropped. The prestigious journal Nature Methods published a paper in which the authors claimed that CRISPR could cause many unintended mutations, rendering it unfit for clinical use. Havoc duly ensued; stocks in CRISPR-based companies plummeted. Thankfully, the authors of the offending paper were responsible, good scientists; they reassessed, then recanted. Their attention- and headline- grabbing results were wrong, and they admitted as much, leading Nature Methods to formally retract the paper this spring.
How did this happen? Shouldn't the editors at a Nature journal know better than to have published this in the first place?
Alas, high-profile scientific journals publish misleading and downright false results fairly regularly. Some errors are unavoidable – that's how the scientific method works. Hypotheses and conclusions will invariably be overturned as new data becomes available and new technologies are developed that allow for deeper and deeper studies. That's supposed to happen. But that's not what we're talking about here. Nor are we talking about obvious offenses like outright plagiarism. We're talking about mistakes that are avoidable, and that still have serious ramifications.
The cultures of both industry and academia promote research that is poorly designed and even more poorly analyzed.
Two parties are responsible for a scientific publication, and thus two parties bear the blame when things go awry: the scientists who perform and submit the work, and the journals who publish it. Unfortunately, both are incentivized for speedy and flashy publications, and not necessarily for correct publications. It is hardly a surprise, then, that we end up with papers that are speedy and flashy – and not necessarily correct.
"Scientists don't lie and submit falsified data," said Andy Koff, a professor of Molecular Biology at Sloan Kettering Institute, the basic research arm of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Richard Harris, who wrote the book on scientific misconduct running the gamut from unconscious bias and ignorance to more malicious fraudulence, largely concurs (full disclosure: I reviewed the book here). "Scientists want to do good science and want to be recognized as such," he said. But even so, the cultures of both industry and academia promote research that is poorly designed and even more poorly analyzed. In Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Millions, Harris describes how scientists must constantly publish in order to maintain their reputations and positions, to get grants and tenure and students. "They are disincentivized from doing that last extra experiment to prove their results," he said; it could prove too risky if it could cost them a publication.
Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus founded Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks the retraction of scientific papers, in 2010. Oransky pointed out that blinded peer review – the pride and joy of the scientific publishing enterprise – is a large part of the problem. "Pre-publication peer review is still important, but we can't treat it like the only check on the system. Papers are being reviewed by non-experts, and reviewers are asked to review papers only tangentially related to their field. Moreover, most peer reviewers don't look at the underlying or raw data, even when it is available. How then can they tell if the analysis is flawed or the data is accurate?" he wondered.
Mistaken publications also erode the public's opinion of legitimate science, which is problematic since that opinion isn't especially high to begin with.
Koff agreed that anonymous peer review is valuable, but severely flawed. "Blinded review forces a collective view of importance," he said. "If an article disagrees with the reviewer's worldview, the article gets rejected or forced to adhere to that worldview – even if that means pushing the data someplace it shouldn't necessarily go." We have lost the scientific principle behind review, he thinks, which was to critically analyze a paper. But instead of challenging fundamental assumptions within a paper, reviewers now tend to just ask for more and more supplementary data. And don't get him started on editors. "Editors are supposed to arbitrate between reviewers and writers and they have completely abdicated this responsibility, at every journal. They do not judge, and that's a real failing."
Harris laments the wasted time, effort, and resources that result when erroneous ideas take hold in a field, not to mention lives lost when drug discovery is predicated on basic science findings that end up being wrong. "When no one takes the time, care, and money to reproduce things, science isn't stopping – but it is slowing down," he noted. Mistaken publications also erode the public's opinion of legitimate science, which is problematic since that opinion isn't especially high to begin with.
Scientists and publishers don't only cause the problem, though – they may also provide the solution. Both camps are increasingly recognizing and dealing with the crisis. The self-proclaimed "data thugs" Nick Brown and James Heathers use pretty basic arithmetic to reveal statistical errors in papers. The microbiologist Elisabeth Bik scans the scientific literature for problematic images "in her free time." The psychologist Brian Nosek founded the Center for Open Science, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting openness, integrity, and reproducibility in scientific research. The Nature family of journals – yes, the one responsible for the latest CRISPR fiasco – has its authors complete a checklist to combat irreproducibility, à la Atul Gawande. And Nature Communications, among other journals, uses transparent peer review, in which authors can opt to have the reviews of their manuscript published anonymously alongside the completed paper. This practice "shows people how the paper evolved," said Koff "and keeps the reviewer and editor accountable. Did the reviewer identify the major problems with the paper? Because there are always major problems with a paper."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- A new mask can detect Covid and send an alert to your phone
- More promising research for a breakthrough drug to treat schizophrenia
- AI tool can create new proteins
- Connections between an unhealthy gut and breast cancer
- Progress on the longevity drug, rapamycin
And an honorable mention this week: Certain exercises may benefit some types of memory more than others
The DNA double helix is often the image spiraling at the center of 21st century advances in biomedicine and the growing bioeconomy. And yet, DNA is molecularly inert. DNA, the code for genes, is not alive and is not strictly necessary for life. Ought life be at the center of our communication of living systems? Is not the Cell a superior symbol of life and our manipulation of living systems?
A code for life isn’t a code without the life that instantiates it. A code for life must be translated. The cell is the basic unit of that translation. The cell is the minimal viable package of life as we know it. Therefore, cell biology is at the center of biomedicine’s greatest transformations, suggests Pulitzer-winning physician-scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee in his latest book, The Song of the Cell: The Exploration of Medicine and the New Human.
The Song of the Cell begins with the discovery of cells and of germ theory, featuring characters such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, who brought the cell “into intimate contact with pathology and medicine.” This intercourse would transform biomedicine, leading to the insight that we can treat disease by thinking at the cellular level. The slightest rearrangement of sick cells might be the path toward alleviating suffering for the organism: eroding the cell walls of a bacterium while sparing our human cells; inventing a medium that coaxes sperm and egg to dance into cellular union for in vitro fertilization (IVF); designing molecular missiles that home to the receptors decorating the exterior of cancer cells; teaching adult skin cells to remember their embryonic state for regenerative medicines.
Mukherjee uses the bulk of the book to elucidate key cell types in the human body, along with their “connective relationships” that enable key organs and organ systems to function. This includes the immune system, the heart, the brain, and so on. Mukherjee’s distinctive style features compelling anecdotes and human stories that animate the scientific (and unscientific) processes that have led to our current state of understanding. In his chapter on neurons and the brain, for example, he integrates Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s meticulous black ink sketches of neurons into Mukherjee’s own personal encounter with clinical depression. In one lucid section, he interviews Dr. Helen Mayberg, a pioneering neurologist who takes seriously the descriptive power of her patients’ metaphors, as they suffer from “caves,” “holes,” “voids,” and “force fields” that render their lives gray. Dr. Mayberg aims to stimulate patients’ neuronal cells in a manner that brings back the color.
Beyond exposing the insight and inventiveness that has arisen out of cell-based thinking, it seems that Mukherjee’s bigger project is an epistemological one. The early chapters of The Song of the Cell continually hint at the potential for redefining the basic unit of biology as the cell rather than the gene. The choice to center biomedicine around cells is, above all, a conspicuous choice not to center it around genes (the subject of Mukherjee’s previous book, The Gene), because genes dominate popular science communication.
This choice of cells over genes is most welcome. Cells are alive. Genes are not. Letters—such as the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that represent the nucleotides of DNA, which make up our genes—must be synthesized into a word or poem or song that offers a glimpse into deeper truths. A key idea embedded in this thinking is that of emergence. Whether in ancient myth or modern art, creation tends to be an emergent process, not a linearly coded script. The cell is our current best guess for the basic unit of life’s emergence, turning a finite set of chemical building blocks—nucleic acids, proteins, sugars, fats—into a replicative, evolving system for fighting stasis and entropy. The cell’s song is one for our times, for it is the song of biology’s emergence out of chemistry and physics, into the “frenetically active process” of homeostasis.
Re-centering our view of biology has practical consequences, too, for how we think about diagnosing and treating disease, and for inventing new medicines. Centering cells presents a challenge: which type of cell to place at the center? Rather than default to the apparent simplicity of DNA as a symbol because it represents the one master code for life, the tension in defining the diversity of cells—a mapping process still far from complete in cutting-edge biology laboratories—can help to create a more thoughtful library of cellular metaphors to shape both the practice and communication of biology.
Further, effective problem solving is often about operating at the right level, or the right scale. The cell feels like appropriate level at which to interrogate many of the diseases that ail us, because the senses that guide our own perceptions of sickness and health—the smoldering pain of inflammation, the tunnel vision of a migraine, the dizziness of a fluttering heart—are emergent.
This, unfortunately, is sort of where Mukherjee leaves the reader, under-exploring the consequences of a biology of emergence. Many practical and profound questions have to do with the ways that each scale of life feeds back on the others. In a tome on Cells and “the future human” I wished that Mukherjee had created more space for seeking the ways that cells will shape and be shaped by the future, of humanity and otherwise.
We are entering a phase of real-world bioengineering that features the modularization of cellular parts within cells, of cells within organs, of organs within bodies, and of bodies within ecosystems. In this reality, we would be unwise to assume that any whole is the mere sum of its parts.
For example, when discussing the regenerative power of pluripotent stem cells, Mukherjee raises the philosophical thought experiment of the Delphic boat, also known as the Ship of Theseus. The boat is made of many pieces of wood, each of which is replaced for repairs over the years, with the boat’s structure unchanged. Eventually none of the boat’s original wood remains: Is it the same boat?
Mukherjee raises the Delphic boat in one paragraph at the end of the chapter on stem cells, as a metaphor related to the possibility of stem cell-enabled regeneration in perpetuity. He does not follow any of the threads of potential answers. Given the current state of cellular engineering, about which Mukherjee is a world expert from his work as a physician-scientist, this book could have used an entire section dedicated to probing this question and, importantly, the ways this thought experiment falls apart.
We are entering a phase of real-world bioengineering that features the modularization of cellular parts within cells, of cells within organs, of organs within bodies, and of bodies within ecosystems. In this reality, we would be unwise to assume that any whole is the mere sum of its parts. Wholeness at any one of these scales of life—organelle, cell, organ, body, ecosystem—is what is at stake if we allow biological reductionism to assume away the relation between those scales.
In other words, Mukherjee succeeds in providing a masterful and compelling narrative of the lives of many of the cells that emerge to enliven us. Like his previous books, it is a worthwhile read for anyone curious about the role of cells in disease and in health. And yet, he fails to offer the broader context of The Song of the Cell.
As leading agronomist and essayist Wes Jackson has written, “The sequence of amino acids that is at home in the human cell, when produced inside the bacterial cell, does not fold quite right. Something about the E. coli internal environment affects the tertiary structure of the protein and makes it inactive. The whole in this case, the E. coli cell, affects the part—the newly made protein. Where is the priority of part now?” 
Beyond the ways that different kingdoms of life translate the same genetic code, the practical situation for humanity today relates to the ways that the different disciplines of modern life use values and culture to influence our genes, cells, bodies, and environment. It may be that humans will soon become a bit like the Delphic boat, infused with the buzz of fresh cells to repopulate different niches within our bodies, for healthier, longer lives. But in biology, as in writing, a mixed metaphor can cause something of a cacophony. For we are not boats with parts to be replaced piecemeal. And nor are whales, nor alpine forests, nor topsoil. Life isn’t a sum of parts, and neither is a song that rings true.
 Wes Jackson, "Visions and Assumptions," in Nature as Measure (p. 52-53).