In 2009, Harvard University physiologist Jack Szostak, Ph.D., won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work studying the telomeres on our DNA. The prolific researcher continued his work on the human genetic code, publishing a groundbreaking Nature Chemistry paper in 2016 elucidating how life first began on Earth. However, as recent events reveal, even Nobel laureates make humiliating mistakes.

On November 23, Szostak and the co-authors of the Nature Chemistry paper requested that it be retracted after discovering that attempts to replicate the study failed.

Tivoli Olsen, a member of Szostak’s lab at Harvard, attempted to replicate the experiment and was not able to, reports Retraction Watch. When Olsen looked back through the original paper, she found that the peptide did not actually do what the researchers had said it did.

Szostak told Retraction Watch on Tuesday that the errors in the paper are “definitely embarrassing.”

Image from page 105 of "Ridpath's history of the world; being an account of the ethnic origin, primitive estate, early migrations, social conditions and present promise of the principal families of men .." (1897)
In Earth's early days, some scientists hypothesize, there was no DNA but there was RNA.

In the original paper, Szostak and his team attempted to recreate the conditions of early Earth, working under the hypothesis that RNA, a type of nucleic acid, developed before DNA. Without DNA or enzymes, though, RNA would need to copy itself somehow. In the retracted paper, Szostak and his colleagues concluded that a type of peptide — a short chain of amino acids — could copy RNA, which may have helped give rise to early life on Earth. It turns out this was not the case.

“In retrospect, we were totally blinded by our belief [in our findings]…we were not as careful or rigorous as we should have been (and as Tivoli was) in interpreting these experiments,” he said.

The paper was extremely well-received at the time, as any study on the origins of life often is.

Szostak's original paper attempted to explain how nucleic acids emerged from the primordial soup.

While it may seem dramatic to watch a Nobel-winning scientist’s work get torn down, this episode doesn’t necessarily represent a breakdown in the scientific process. In fact, this is how science is supposed to work: When a particular finding is determined to be untrue, scientists revise the literature. Usually, new studies build on or replace previous studies, but in this case, a study is simply being removed from the literature.

“As a scientist the job is to troubleshoot. You can’t help nor can you ignore where that takes you. I fulfilled my obligation to insure that no one after me would waste their time on this,” Olsen told Retraction Watch.

While this retraction helps set the record straight in the scientific literature, it’s not totally clear what this means for the papers that cited Szostak’s paper since it was published.


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