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Week in Review, July 8–12

Editor accused of fraud leaves post; the good and the bad of gut microbiota; bacterial gene shuffle; legal restrictions hamper illicit drug research; antibodies and autism

By | July 12, 2013

Fraud accusations drive away editor

FLICKR, JOHN MARTINEZ PAVLIGALast week, The Scientist reported that Dmitry Kuznetsov, a Russian biochemist with a long history of fraud allegations, had taken the role as chief editor of two new journals launched in 2011. The misconduct accusations against Kuznetsov, if true, amount to “one of the worst fraud records in the history of science,” said Dan Larhammar, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden who has written about problems in Kuznetsov's work. “That should be a major concern to” the publisher that recruited Kuznetsov as editor-in-chief, he said.

This week, Kuznetsov sent reporter Kerry Grens a series of emails between himself and Manisha Basu, an editor at the journals’ publisher, ScienceDomain International, which revealed that Kuznetsov was leaving his posts. Still, the biochemist denies any wrongdoing, even offering explanations for why researchers had been unable to replicate his results or had trouble locating some of the allegedly “missing” papers cited in his publications.

Gut microbes—the good, the bad, and the ugly

WIKIMEDIA, CDCTwo new studies out this week tell an interesting story about the microbes that inhabit our gastrointestinal tracts: certain microbes in the colon may speed disease progression in HIV patients; and select strains of Clostridium bacteria proved beneficial in mouse models of colitis and allergy. HIV patients on antiretroviral treatment harbored variable gut microbial communities, some quite similar to healthy individuals and others more similar to untreated patients, whose microbiomes harbored a greater proportion of members of the Proteobacteria family and fewer members of Clostridia and Bacteroidia families. Interestingly, the more abnormal a patient’s microbiome, the greater immune cell activity and the higher the levels of inflammatory molecules in their blood. The researchers suspect that viral replication in the mucosa of the intestines can weaken the barrier, allowing the peaceful microbial inhabitants of the gut to leak into the surrounding tissues, causing inflammation and the proliferation of the immune cells that are susceptible to HIV infection.

In the second study, the researchers built on previous findings that germ-free mice treated with a cocktail of a few dozen strains of Clostridia promoted the activity of regulatory T cells (Treg) in the colon, protecting the mice from allergies and intestinal inflammation. Specifically, they showed that Clostridium derived from a sample of human feces increased Treg cells in mice and served to reduce symptoms of colitis and allergy-induced diarrhea. 

Bacterial sex?

FLICKR, NIAIDBacteria are known to share genetic material through a process known as conjugation, in which plasmids mediate the transfer of short segments of DNA, one-by-one, between cells. Research published this week suggests that at least one bacterial species, Mycobacterium smegmatis, can share multiple segments of DNA at once, resulting in a level of genetic shuffling on par with sexual reproduction. Study coauthor Todd Gray, a geneticist at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center, said that “we can generate a million [hybrid bacteria] overnight, and each of those million will be different than each other,” by utilizing the process, which he and his colleagues dubbed “distributive conjugal transfer.”

Overly stringent drug laws impede research

FLICKR, L'ORSO SUL MONOCICLOIn more than 4 decades as a scientist, David Nutt of Imperial College London says  he’s never experienced a greater impediment to research than the worldwide ban on the study of psychedelics and other drugs. In an opinion piece at www.the-scientist.com, Nutt argues that laws against the sale, possession, and transport of narcotic and psychotropic drugs is stifling “scientific research on the effects, even the potential therapeutic value, of these drugs.” This situation, he contends, is as bad as when the Catholic Church banned the telescope after Galileo used it to confirm that the Earth was not the center of the solar system, but rather that the planets orbited around the sun. He urges researchers to speak out against such censorship, and is starting a petition to this end. “Together, we can bring illegal drugs back to the lab,” he writes.

Antibodies in mom may predict autism risk in kids

WIKIPEDIA, KEN HAMMOND (USDA)A group of autoantibodies, which trigger a self-immune response, were recently discovered to be common in mothers of children with autism. New research identifies a possible connection between those autoantibodies and the development of autism in their children—six proteins to which the antibodies bind are highly expressed in the fetal brain. The researchers found that 23 percent of 246 mothers of autistic children carried antibodies that bound to two or more of these proteins. Only 1 percent of mothers with normally developing children carried such antibodies. The researchers are now working to develop a test that detects these antibodies in the mother to predict a child’s risk of developing autism spectrum disorders.

“I cannot laud these authors enough,” Andrew Zimmerman, a neurologist from the Kennedy Krieger Institute, told The Scientist. “Given that, at present, only between 15 and 20 percent of children with autism have known causes—mainly genetic and infectious mechanisms—this will be a major advance.”

More news in life science:

Stem-Cell Heart Repair Questioned

A new analysis finds hundreds of discrepancies in publications from a German researcher who claims to have repaired diseased hearts using stem-cell therapy.  

WHO To Convene MERS Virus Panel

An expert committee will decide whether to escalate efforts to combat the novel coronavirus that is spreading throughout the Middle East.

Good Budget News for Govt. Science

Congressional subcommittees have proposed increased funding for NIH and NSF.

Particulates from Coal Shorten Lives

A policy to provide Northern Chinese residents with free coal for heat ended up reducing their life spans.

Misconduct Delayed Drug Approval

FDA endorsement of a new blood-thinning drug was delayed for almost a year because the agency discovered misconduct at clinical trial sites in China.  

Seasonality of Premature Birth

Babies conceived in May have an elevated risk of being born early.

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