Y’all: The New Yorker published an article about the genetic differences between identical twins this week, and the science world is pissed.
In “Same But Different,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning physician Siddhartha Mukherjee writes about the way epigenetics — the idea that distinctions between individuals aren’t just caused by genes but the way the body reads those genes — underlies the differences between his mother and her identical twin sister, but many big-name geneticists aren’t convinced he did the science justice. For a high-profile science writer writing high-profile science in a high-profile publication, the science is, they claim, irresponsibly thin.
Epigenetics has been studied for over half a century but is still not even remotely well understood. Mukherjee, as Nobel laureates and editors of prominent academic journals have pointed out, painted a misleadingly, oversimplified picture of the state of the research, making it seem as though the marked differences between his mother and aunt — one subdued, the other boisterous, and other such polarities — could be directly read in the way their DNA was coiled up, spooled around proteins called histones.
Mukherjee, it seems, is getting ahead of himself; in its current state, the science community’s understanding of epigenetics isn’t even close to being solid.
Jerry Coyne, a prolific University of Chicago scientist who runs the blog Why Evolution Is True, compiled the responses of prominent scientists to the piece. Nobel Laureate Wally Gilbert, a retired Harvard biochemist and molecular biologist, called the article “so wildly wrong that it defies rational analysis.”
Sidney Altman, another Nobel Laureate from Yale University, asserted that there was no such thing as an epigenetic code — a term Mukherjee uses twice in his article to describe what he suggests are consistent patterns of DNA modification, like ornamentation with carbon-hydrogen balls (methyl groups) or the curling of a DNA strand around a histone.
Many of the comments targeted the sheer scientific inaccuracy of Mukherjee’s reference to Yamanaka factors — proteins known as transcription factors that turn a gene on or off — as evidence that epigenetic marks were recorded in the DNA as a form of long-term memory storage.
“Ironically, the Yamanaka experiments mentioned in the text clearly argue for the latter,” Florian Maderspacher, a senior editor at the journal Current Biology, wrote in a letter to the New Yorker pointing out that Mukherjee didn’t just oversimplify the research — he clearly didn’t understand it at all.
The central argument the scientists have put forth is, simply, that epigenetics is just not that simple. Presenting it as such, shrouded in soaring prose, is irresponsible on Mukherjee’s part but even more so on the New Yorkers: Tom Maniatis, a noted biochemist and biophysicist, called the publication out for not conducting a proper, unbiased scientific review, and Columbia biochemist Richard Mann, echoing Maniatis’ sentiments, punctuated his comment with a mic-dropping “Ugh.”
But the larger issue of Mukherjee’s article is this: If you ignore or are unaware of its scientific inaccuracies, it’s actually a beautiful read. Steve Henikoff, a research with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, described why this is dangerous:
These errors and omissions coming from such a highly regarded author are especially unfortunate, as aside from the science, the piece is entertaining and well-written, and as a result will likely misinform the educated public about an area of biology that has great potential for making a positive social impact.
The difficulty with science writing is that it’s hard to simplify complicated ideas in an accurate way and even harder to resist fabricating a neat story arc. Mukherjee fails on both these marks, but perhaps we can’t dismiss the value of his piece entirely; at the very least, he’s starting a conversation about science where it very likely wouldn’t have existed before.
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