Cool Heads and Hothead

Model behavior on a model organism.

By | February 1, 2008

As I write this, a scientific field is tearing itself apart on our Web site (see http://the-scientist.com/MRSA). There have been vitriolic personal attacks in the voluminous exchanges of the sort we've unfortunately come to expect. The topic - the regulation of toxin genes in staphylococci - is of both academic and medical interest. The fight is not. It is both simultaneously compulsive and lamentable.

From time to time research throws up data that don't fit with the collective mindset of how things work. This can be enthralling from the scientific point of view. But it also shines a spotlight on the group structures and social processes within the particular field in question, presenting a series of risks and opportunities to the key protagonists.

So with MRSA fights on my mind, it was a refreshing change to read about how scientists have conducted themselves in the rumpus over reversion mutants in Arabidopsis ). Again the sociological aspects of the community response have been fascinating, but for a different reason: They've been exemplary.

Here's the background: Three years ago, a group of researchers provided evidence for the inheritance of information that was not present in parental chromosomes, but was to be found in grandparents and earlier forbears.1 These were, to quote Steven Henikoff, "baffling new observations in plant genetics that challenge current concepts."2

We charged staff writer Andrea Gawrylewski to report on what's happened since. Her feature summarizes the initial experiments and the research that followed, including the latest studies from Susan Lolle, the scientist who made the discovery.

The jury, it's safe to say, is still out on reversion in Arabidopsis. So how did the field handle it? Despite the incendiary nature of the topic and the potential kindling of the media, it was cool heads that responded to hothead. A typical comment: David Haig told The New York Times that it was "'a really strange and unexpected result,' which would be important if the observation holds up and applies widely in nature."

Researchers published and debated - cordially - at least four alternative explanations for the data. And when experimental data contradicting the original paper were generated they were published with restraint and respect.3 That paper, claiming to show a marked tendency to outcross among the mutant plants, concluded: "This tendency to outcross may provide an alternative explanation for the apparent genetic instability of hothead mutants."

That's classy.

Lolle, who confessed to being afraid of the response that her work might elicit, has been free to pursue the topic further while engaging in occasional reasoned arguments. Today, despite widespread skepticism in the community, senior figures continue to defer judgment. For example, Elliott Meyerowitz declined any comment for Gawrylewski's article other than to say that he was awaiting more data on the phenomenon.

It's just possible that the thought of being famously wrong on a radical new development in biology is making everyone cautious about their public utterings. No one wants the infamy of Thomas Watson ("I think there is a world market for maybe five computers") or Pierre Pachet ("Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction").

It's possible that in private, researchers are trashing Lolle and all her works. But I doubt it. What we have here is a case of model behavior on a model organism. The original researchers, those who have followed up on their findings, and the senior figures in the field who have provided interviews or written commentaries have done so with cool heads and good hearts.

This contrasts dramatically with all the dysfunctional behavior in the life sciences at the moment. Plant geneticists, take a bow.

References

1. S. Lolle et al., "Genome-wide non-Mendelian inheritance of extra-genomic information in Arabidopsis," Nature, 434: 505-9, 2005. 2. S. Henikoff, "Rapid changes in plant genomes," Plant Cell, 17:2852-5, 2005. 3. P. Peng et al., "Increased outcrossing in hothead mutants," Nature, 443:E8, 2006.

Comments

Avatar of: Shanthi Raam

Shanthi Raam

Posts: 43

February 5, 2008

First , my hats off to Dr,Lolle for continuing her work and to her institution which supports her in this endeavor. Yes, plant biologists in contrast to the "animal" biologists have behaved as mature scientists do and should with respect and courtesy, with a goal to uncover the truth. A refreshing change. \nWhenever research data that seem to topple the widely accepted norm are published, ruthless bullying by the established scientists begins. Most often, emerging scientists or even established ones from smaller, not so prestigeous institutions find it difficult to survive this bullying. The worst form of bullying that occurs is preventing publication of the data- the strategy being to cut the umbellical chord of the near-term baby BEFORE it is born. To prevent this form of bulllying, we need Editors with a strong sense of scientific propriety , conviction and courage to see to it that such data come to the discussion forum by publishing the data. Scientific truths will emerge only through honest discussions and open crticisms, both positive and negative. With new technologies and brilliant new methods of analysis, new truths will continue to be discovered and some are bound to topple the ones we have accepted and are comfortable with. The joy of being a scientist is being a witness to this magnificent unfolding of nature's mysteries.An open mind and scientific objectivity are absolutely essential for experiencing that "joy" of being ascientist.

Popular Now

  1. A Coral to Outlast Climate Change
  2. Antarctica Is Turning Green
  3. First In Vivo Human Genome Editing to Be Tested in New Clinical Trial
  4. How to Tell a Person’s “Brain Age”
AAAS