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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Why Do University Press Releases Continue to Spread Misinformation?

There's a very interesting paper that's just been published online in ScienceExpress. The work is by Haung et al. (2013) from the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT (Boston, Massachusetts, USA). These workers looked at the genomes of 70 different malignant melanomas and discovered that fifty (50) of them had mutations in the promoter region of the gene TERT (telomerase reverse transcriptase). The mutations created a new binding site for transcription factors resulting in a 2-4 fold increase in transcription of the gene.

Here's a picture of the gene from the Ensembl website [TERT]. The position of the transcription start site (P) is shown and the approximate position of the two mutations (M) is just upstream.

It's good that mutations affecting melanomas have been identified but the result isn't totally unexpected. We've known for fifty years that mutations in the promoter regions of genes can affect expression. Even in humans, such mutations have been widely studied; for example, lactase persistence is due to mutations in enhancer regions of the lactase gene.

Let's look at the press release from the Broad Institute [Genomic "dark matter" yields major melanoma discovery]. It's written by Paul Goldsmith who writes ...
"This new finding represents an initial foray into the 'dark matter' of the cancer genome," said Levi Garraway, senior associate member of the Broad, and associate professor of medicine at Dana-Farber, the article’s senior author.
WTF! Since when have promoters and enhancers been called "dark matter"? And why isn't it mentioned, or even hinted at, in the published paper?
Only about 1% of the human genome provides the blueprint for the body’s proteins. The remaining "non-coding" portion of the genome, sometimes referred to as dark matter, is poorly understood. Scientists have only recently begun exploring the relationship between these regions and the body’s cellular structure and processes.
We have an excellent understanding of the human genome [What's in Your Genome?]. This press release implies that only 1% of the genome is understood and the rest is mysterous "dark matter." We've known for decades that most of this DNA is junk (defective transposons). We know about pseudogenes, genes that encode functional RNAs, regulatory regions (including enhancers), introns, centromeres, defective viruses, telomeres, origins of replication, and several other functional parts of the genome.

I don't believe that the senior author of this study, Levi Garraway, actually believes what he is quoted as saying. If it were true then why didn't he put it in the paper? Why is there nothing in the paper about the importance of revealing mysterious "dark matter"?

Why do press releases have to be so misleading?

Huang, F.W., Hodis, E., Xu, M.J., Kryukov, G.V., Chin, L., and Garraway, L.A. (2013) Highly Recurrent TERT Promoter Mutations in Human Melanoma. Science published online January 24 2013 [doi: 10.1126/science.1229259


  1. I just knew you were going to have a post about this one - so egregious it was when I first saw it.

    It's not even an enhancers - we can be generous and consider enhancers relatively difficult to find it because some of them are not very conserved - it's a promoter...

  2. Ok I'm coming up for grant renewal soon so I've written my next press release:

    Promoters are mysterious regions of the genome that somehow influence gene expression. Some call them the "God Sequence". How they work and even their existence has been debated by leading researchers for decades. Until now.

  3. Given that TERT and its expression level has been heavily implicated in carcinogenesis for at least a decade, I don't see what the fuss is about. Had the exact same paper been authored by someone at Montana State, it would not have even be reviewed in Science.

  4. Press releases are like genes, if there's interest in them/selection pressure for them, they're accurate/conserved. Since no one reads press releases seriously, they're unconserved and degenerate into dross.

    Unfortunately my analogy fails, for a few reasons perhaps, but most importantly because some people do take press releases and the news 'articles' that are based off of them quite seriously.

  5. Larry Moran: "Why do press releases have to be so misleading?"

    The question you should be asking is How is well staffed and funded is my university press release department and are the deadlines for publishing content reasonable for non-specialists to do justice to the paper they are covering?

    1. No, that's not the question I should be asking. The question I am asking is whether my university can afford to embarrass itself by putting out inaccurate and misleading press releases. If the unit doesn't have enough employees or enough money then it shouldn't put out press releases.

      No press releases are ten times better than bad press releases.

    2. You can afford to be obstinant about it all because you're clearly not calling the shots at your university.

    3. What does that mean? So far my university has done a pretty good job with press releases.

      Here's one on the recent analysis of placental mammal evolution [Our furry, scampering common ancestor]. It's a complicated subject but they did a pretty good job.

    4. As as science educator I find your incuriosity toward the problem of habitually bad press releases (the front line of science outreach and communication) baffling. The way you respond is to take lazy pot shots at them and then assert that they're expendable organs of the university. It makes no sense.

  6. That should read "How well staffed..."

  7. This bizarre conflation of the idea from cosmology of matter that's very difficult to directly detect ("dark matter") with the idea from genetics of DNA that does not directly code for proteins (untranscribed DNA, the vast majority of which can be termed "junk DNA") reminds me of conversations I used to have with non-scientist friends.

    I've had several conversations that started out with some variation on "You're a scientist, right? OK, can I ask you a question about something that's been bugging me? Yeah, I don't get Black Body Radiation".
    My expertise in Physics is very limited. I like to think I have some expertise in Biology, but when a non-scientist thinks about science, they often seem to think about Physics first, and Biology only if the conversation turns to medicine.

    But, none of that should apply to a press release. Somebody needs to ask the author of that press release if they frequently get confused between Sweden and Switzerland, or by which is faster, the speed of light or the speed of sound.

  8. Outright lying.

    We need a word to describe press releases which lie about the alleged stupidity or allegedly flawed hypotheses of past generations of scientists, in order to make today's published work look better by comparison against a fictional, ignorant past.

    Maybe we should call it "Paradigm SHAFT"!?

    Here's another example from cosmology, a press release from NASA saying that the whole science of cosmology was nothing but "wild speculations" until their more precise measurements of the cosmic microwave anisotropy were made by WMAP.

    Outright lying. We have to put a stop it. Name and blame.

    The obvious, classic example is the lying press release put out by the ENCODE project saying that they had proven that 80% of the human genome had "function", thus disproving Junk DNA.

    Maybe we should call such press releases "Birneys"? "Birneyisms"?


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