Eyelashes Up Close

Fascinating article by Peter Satir about cilia’s role in development and disease.1 I wonder if improper immune responses like vasculitis might be caused by degradation of the non-motile cilia on the mast cells along the lumen. The known chemical responses to foreign matter in the bloodstream which trigger inflammation through the histamine reaction along with leukocyte activity might be intimately linked to the sensing ability (or lack thereof) of these non-motile microtubules. They may exist in greater numbers and play a more important signaling role on smooth muscle cells than previously thought.

Anthony Gelbert
Air traffic controller (ret.)
Colchester, VT

Thank you for an interesting article. I have long puzzled about the origins of eukaryote motility—even before Lynn Margulis proposed that cilia evolved independently as spirochaete bacteria. To me then (and now) this was highly implausible, and I support the idea that cilia and...

However, Satir’s hypothesis that cilia originated as viruses is a very interesting one. From my analysis of the issue, it is very likely that early in the history of the evolution and differentiation of living things that “working” functional modules were transferred horizontally between evolving lineages. This capacity survives today in a rudimentary form with the horizontal transfer of genetic information via transformation and viral transduction. It could well be that in the early days as eukaryote lineages were differentiating that ciliary modules were exchanged horizontally.

William P. Hall
Fellow, University of Melbourne
Victoria, Australia

1. P. Satir, “Eyelashes Up Close,” The Scientist, 24(7):30-35, July 2010.

Scientists vs. Engineers

Re: “Scientists vs. Engineers,”1 in my 40-year career, I have migrated from science to engineering. The two disciplines are really just different sides of the same coin; science is heavier on the theoretical (they ask ‘why?’), whereas engineering is more on the application (they ask ‘how?’).

The occasional friction between these two groups stems from the apparent lack of understanding of each others’ limitations. On paper many ideas in science appear possible. However, to engineer an idea from conception to a fully operational device may prove to be extremely difficult, costly, and maybe impractical. (All comments are mine and not those of NASA or the Agency.)

Ron Fong
NASA, Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, Calif.

As an engineer myself, I think that engineers can and do handle uncertainty well. We call this risk, and build in safety factors and such like. Both groups handle different types of risk differently. The scientist may want to elegantly answer the wrong question (spending 6 months on a week’s work), but engineers do this, too. We typically have a compulsion to quantify everything, and often the wrong things. The scientist may do one simple experiment that will save a week’s worth of quantification. I’ve enjoyed working in an area that has both scientists and engineers doing the same job. We approach the problem differently, and I am a better scientist AND engineer as a result.

Jon Coffman
Principal Engineer
Andover, Mass.

1. H.S. Wiley, “Scientists vs. Engineers,” The Scientist, 24(7):29, July 2010.

Is the Synthetic Cell about Life?

I’m so happy to see something in print that describes this experiment of synthesizing a bacterial genome accurately.1 While synthesizing a full genome is a technical accomplishment, even if one of the smallest genomes around, it is not anywhere close to “synthesizing life.” It is much more similar to adding or subtracting genes or blocks of genes, and this has been going on for many years. We have no idea how to build a working membrane and we aren’t even aware of—let alone capable of synthesizing—all of the positional information inherent in a working cell.

Greg Pahel
Consultant to Biotech and Pharma
Raleigh, NC

1. G. Kaebnick, “Is the ‘Synthetic Cell’ About Life?” The Scientist, 24(7):27, July 2010.

Opinion: Erase Science’s Blacklist

In regards to the opinion by Suresh Radhakrishnan, a scientist convicted of misconduct who argues he and others in his position have a valuable place in science,1 a scientist found guilty of misconduct and whose guilt has been made public, if allowed to continue investigating will probably become one of the most reliable researchers. Simply provide oversight to ensure that a cloud of unreliability will not hang over his/her work. To throw out such an individual from the research field is a waste of society’s economic investment in his/her education.

Kyra Sido
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison. WI

“Competition and commercial imperatives can bring out the cheat that lurks in all of us.”

Science is not an island separate from the surrounding, often corrupt, society. Those condemning the creators of false data sometimes ignore related sins that include withholding information to obtain a patent or slow down a rival, giving less—or more—credit than merited to others in publications, crushing colleagues to achieve ambitions, shooting down projects that threaten the status quo, and publishing fake journals in order to deceive. If blame is to be laid, it should be on a ‘publish or perish’ system that punishes the innocent for failing to deliver and that pushes the vulnerable (who include the mentally ill) into committing fraud. Competition and commercial imperatives can bring out the cheat that lurks in all of us.

Vic Norris
University of Rouen
Mont Saint Aignan, France

A scientist is like a judge of the Supreme Court. If he commits a major offence in the line of his profession or calling, he cannot be allowed to continue in that profession or calling. A bad egg is a bad egg, and you cannot honestly say “parts of it are excellent!”

If the offence is not related to his profession or calling, and if it is not a major crime, leniency can be shown.

Two important findings in most investigations of fraud in science (that I am familiar with) have been (1) that the erring scientist had been held in high esteem till the discovery of the fraud; and (2) that “cheating” is never limited to single instances, but has pervaded the entire careers of the guilty persons; (“Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus”). The inference is that none of the research work of the involved individual can be trusted. In fact, it is even more serious than that, because all the culprit’s associates, students, and so on will also come under a shadow of suspicion.

Tarakad Raman
Retired Scientist, Indian Agricultural
Research Institute
New Delhi, India

The links in this essay are must reading, for they provide much more information about the matter. While some 15 papers were retracted as a result of the alleged misconduct, there was also a claim that the fraudulent papers had not made any impact on their field of research. The obvious question is why the papers were published in the first place if their impact was so minimal—with or without the misconduct? Perhaps the investigation should have been expanded to determine why the PIs invested so much time and money in research having no impact, even if no fraud had occurred.

Forrest M. Mims III
Geronimo Creek Observatory
Seguin, TX

1. S. Radhakrishnan, “Opinion: Erase Science’s Blacklist,” The Scientist News, July 14, 2010.

We want to hear from you. Please e-mail us your comments, criticisms, or differing viewpoints to

In our profile of July’s Scientist to Watch, we wrote that Vivek Jayaraman was 40. He is, in fact, 39. The Scientist regrets the error.

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