Welcome to the April 2015 High Five here at Altmetric! In this blog post, I’ll be leading you on a tour of the top 5 peer-reviewed scientific articles this month according to Altmetric’s scoring system. On a monthly basis from here on out, my High Five posts will examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric have seen attention for that month.
Paper #1. Genetically Modifying Human Embryos – A Debate
Our first “High Five” paper sparked controversy both in the scientific community and the public sphere last month. As George Dvorsky wrote in iO9, geneticists in China made history by genetically modifying human embryos. The science itself wasn’t the only thing that made headlines however – the ethical debate surrounding this type of genetic engineering is intense.
After weeks of speculation, it can finally be confirmed that geneticists in China have modified the DNA of human embryos. It’s a watershed moment in biotech history, but the experiment may ultimately serve as a major setback in the effort to responsibly develop beneficial interventions involving the human germline. Rumors about the experiment had been circulating for weeks, prompting calls for oversight and even a moratorium on such work. – George Dvorsky
The paper, published in Protein & Cell, was originally rejected by Nature and Science “apparently on ethical grounds,” Dvorsky writes. The journals declined to comment on this claim according to this Nature News article.
In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.
The team injected 86 embryos and then waited 48 hours, enough time for the CRISPR/Cas9 system and the molecules that replace the missing DNA to act — and for the embryos to grow to about eight cells each. Of the 71 embryos that survived, 54 were genetically tested. This revealed that just 28 were successfully spliced, and that only a fraction of those contained the replacement genetic material. “If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100%,” Huang says. “That’s why we stopped. We still think it’s too immature.” – David Cyranoski & Sara Reardon, Nature News
The paper (which IS open access) received widespread coverage in both the mainstream media and the science blogosphere. Carl Zimmer wrote about the paper on his National Geographic blog The Loom: “While these embryos will not be growing up into genetically modified people, I suspect this week will go down as a pivotal moment in the history of medicine.” In the blog post, Zimmer summarizes the history behind this research, what the researchers did and what the implications are.
There were other concerns about the paper as well, including an apparently short peer-review time period pointed out on Twitter. The journal, Protein & Cell, rejected these claims and wrote that “the editorial decision to publish this study should not be viewed as an endorsement of this practice nor an encouragement of similar attempts, but rather the sounding of an alarm to draw immediate attention to the urgent need to rein in applications of gene-editing technologies, especially in the human germ cells or embryos.”
— John Borghi (@JohnBorghi) April 22, 2015
The Australian Social Media Center collected expert reactions to the new research and published them here.
The research is highly controversial for a number of reasons. Firstly, research on human embryos is heavily restricted in Australia, and in other countries some level of regulation occurs. Secondly, the ethical justification that the Chinese group used for performing this research in human embryos was that they used embryos that would not be able to yield a viable pregnancy. In this case, they used donor embryos from a fertility clinic which has been fertilised by multiple sperm (the egg is very effective at stopping the penetration of more than one sperm at fertilisation, but occasionally this mechanism fails, and a “2-sperm fertilised” embryo with too much DNA is formed – these are not viable).
Finally, and perhaps the most concerning part of the research is the report of a large number of “off target” effects, meaning that their cut and paste editing occurred in the wrong place in the DNA, which was completely out of their control. It is my current opinion that this type of research in human embryos must advance with extreme caution and that the statement in the abstract that this technology “holds tremendous promise for…clinical research”, at least in reference to human embryos, is misleading and irresponsible at this point in time. – Dr. Hannah Brown, Researcher at the Robinson Research Institute, the School of Paediatrics and Reproductive Health at the University of Adelaide and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, for Austrailian SMC
- More controversy in the CRISPR/Cas9 debate. Editing DNA in human embryos: Good or Bad idea? CauseScience.com
- World’s first genetically modified human embryo raises ethical concerns, Hannah Brown, The Conversation
- Chinese paper on embryo engineering splits scientific community, Science News
- Critics Lash Out At Chinese Scientists Who Edited DNA In Human Embryos, NPR
- The case for genetically engineered babies, Christopher Gyngell
- The reported off-target effects in the recent Jiang et al human embryo #CRISPR paper are partly incorrect, A CRISPR blog / bibliography
Paper #2. More Evidence of a NO link between the MMR Vaccine and Autism
The next High Five paper also relates to a public sphere controversy involving science (or lack thereof). A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this month confirms the lack of any association between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorders.
In this large sample of privately insured children with older siblings, receipt of the MMR vaccine was not associated with increased risk of ASD, regardless of whether older siblings had ASD. These findings indicate no harmful association between MMR vaccine receipt and ASD even among children already at higher risk for ASD. – Jain et al. 2015
The study was covered by several news outlets and science blogs, most of which featured headlines such as “No link between MMR and autism, major study concludes.” The Guardian wrote that this research involving a cohort of 95,000 children “is [the] latest research to contradict findings of discredited gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield.” [Given that, however, I’m not sure why this Guardian article decided to run a header image of a sharp (scary) needle. But visual communication best practices are another topic.] I like Phil Plat’s Slate article about this study – he writes about why the public fears the MMR vaccine.
People simply don’t make decisions based on facts. That’s not how we’re wired. Fear is an incredibly strong motivator, and many of the anti-vax groups use it to their advantage. Look at the truly atrocious Australian Vaccination Skeptic Network, who actually and truly compare vaccination to sexual assault (and seriously, survivors of such assaults may want to have a care clicking that link; the AVSN graphic is abhorrent and brutal). – Phil Plat
For background information, Maki Naro at The Nib did a great cartoon last year on how vaccines work.
Despite over a decades’ worth of research that have found no association between the measles vaccine and autism, some parents still refuse to immunize their children. Well, here’s a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that says, again, there’s no link. And this time, they looked at insurance claims for more than 95,000 children, some of whom have older siblings with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). – Study With 95,000 Children Finds No Link Between Autism and Measles Vaccine, Even In High Risk Children, IFLScience
- Study With 95,000 Children Finds No Link Between Autism and Measles Vaccine, Even In High Risk Children, IFLscience
- Slamming the Door Shut: Vaccines and Autism, Phil Plait, Slate
- No Link Between MMR Vaccine and Autism, Even in High-Risk Kids, NIH Director’s Blog
Paper #3. The Brontosaurus is Back!
Our third High Five paper is a bit more light – but still at the center of a scientific “controversy.” This is the controversy over Brontosaurus – first it was a distinct genus of dinosaur, then it wasn’t even a type of dinosaur at all – then it was again! But why did scientists change everything we thought we knew about Little Foot in The Land Before Time in the first place? Charles Choi at Scientific American provides a good overview of the history of Brontosaurus:
The first of the Brontosaurus genus was named in 1879 by famed paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. The specimen still stands on display in the Great Hall of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. In 1903, however, paleontologist Elmer Riggs found that Brontosaurus was apparently the same as the genus Apatosaurus, which Marsh had first described in 1877. In such cases the rules of scientific nomenclature state that the oldest name has priority, dooming Brontosaurus to another extinction.
Now a new study suggests resurrecting Brontosaurus. It turns out the original Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus fossils appear different enough to belong to separate groups after all. “Generally, Brontosaurus can be distinguished from Apatosaurus most easily by its neck, which is higher and less wide,” says lead study author Emanuel Tschopp, a vertebrate paleontologist at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal. “So although both are very massive and robust animals, Apatosaurus is even more extreme than Brontosaurus.” – Scientific American
The paper, published in PeerJ (which I think is cool in and of itself, as PeerJ is a leader in terms of fast peer-review and open access digital publishing), is titled A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and authored by Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus and Roger Benson. It is nearly 300 pages long and chock full of measurement tables of and photos of fossils.
Tschopp didn’t set out to resurrect the Brontosaurus when he started analysing different specimens of diplodocid — the group to which Apatosaurus, Diplodocus and other giants belong. But he was interested in reviewing how the fossils had been classified and whether anatomical differences between specimens represented variation within species, or between species or genera. Tschopp and his colleagues analysed nearly 500 anatomical traits in dozens of specimens belonging to all of the 20 or so species of diplodocids to create a family tree. They spent five years amassing data, visiting 20 museums across Europe and the United States. – Ewen Callaway, Nature News
Study author Dr. Emanual Tschopp appeared in an informative video interview with “This Week in Science.” Tschopp says that while scientists have uncovered an Apatasaurus skull, there are only rumors of a Brontosaurus skull.
Having only the fossils, we cannot make tests of interbreeding to see if they can have fertile offspring. So really very detailed comparison of the anatomy of the bones is the only way we can address this question. But it also takes, like the initial idea of Charles Darwin, that new species are formed by the accumulation of new traits. And these statistical approaches that we used have this as a basic idea. So the more different two skeletons, or also two groups of skeletons which can be species or genera, the more different they are, the more distantly related are they. – Dr. Emanual Tschopp, in This Week in Science Interview
But while every news outlet under the sun was focusing on the return of the name Brontosaurus – indicative of the fact that scientific nomenclature CAN come to embody cultural meaning – some researchers pointed to other aspects of the PeerJ paper as having perhaps more scientific significance.
“Most of the press is really concentrating on whether or not Brontosaurus is back,” says [Mark] Norell, who was not involved in the the study, “but that’s not really a scientific question — it’s more semantics. And as a scientific question, it’s not even really that interesting. What is interesting, however, is the detailed and complex phylogenetic treatment of a group of dinosaurs that’s hard to study.” – Mark Norell, Chair and Curator-in-Charge of the American Museum of Natural History’s Paleontology Division; iO9 article by George Dvorsky
My favorite post on the Brontosaurus news might have been Michael Balter’s guest blog post on Last Word on Nothing, Guest Post: Brontosaurus and Me. He recounts his own relationship with the story, which actually started nearly a year before the PeerJ paper was published, and how he came to see Brontosaurus in a cultural and personal context.
(An interesting side-note related to scientific publishing: PeerJ apparently broke its own embargo to make sure the 300 page document was correct online before journalists started linking to it. 300 pages! That doesn’t happen much at other traditional scientific journals.)
- Brontosaurus Regains Dinosaur Status, Bob Grant, The Scientist
- Brontosaurus may return thanks to new dinosaur analysis, Stephen Brusatte, Ars Technica
- Brontosaurus is back! Michael Rundle, Wired
- Brontosaurus Stomps Back to Claim Its Status as Real Dinosaur: Like Pluto losing its standing as a planet, Brontosaurus became a non-species. Now scientists say that may have been the wrong call, by Ralph Martins, National Geographic
- Bully for Brontosaurus, Greg Laden
- The Brontosaurus is Back – Author Interview, PeerJ
- Brontosaurus Should Be Reinstated As A Distinct Dinosaur, Say Scientists, George Dvorsky, iO9
- The thunder lizard returns – Brontosaurus resurrected, David Hone, Guardian Science
- ‘Brontosaurus’ name resurrected by new dino family tree, Michael Balter, Science
- Scientists Unexpectedly Discover That The Brontosaurus May Be A Real Dinosaur After All, Alex Kasprak, BuzzFeed
Paper #4. Puppy Love
Our forth High Five paper will get you every time.
The Science paper, “Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds,” describes something much more close to home for many of us than its scientific language might suggest: how gazing behavior from dogs promotes human-dog bonding.
If you think of your dog as your “fur baby,” science has your back. New research shows that when our canine pals stare into our eyes, they activate the same hormonal response that bonds us to human infants. The study—the first to show this hormonal bonding effect between humans and another species—may help explain how dogs became our companions thousands of years ago. – David Grimm, Science News
It makes sense to me. I’ve always said I’ve never had a dog that will just sit there and stare me in the eyes like my dog Mojo does. And Mojo is definitely the closest pet I’ve ever had – did I say pet? He is basically family.
Study co-author Takefumi Kikusui told Live Science: “We humans use eye gaze for affiliative communications, and are very much sensitive to eye contact.” It appears that dog gazing behavior increases oxytocin (hormone) levels in dog owners.
The Japanese team measured oxytocin levels in urine before and after 30-minute interactions between volunteer humans and the dogs and wolves they had raised. The human-animal pairings were split into long and short gaze groups, to see how duration of gaze impacted oxytocin production. They found that only owners involved in the lengthier gazing sessions with, as the authors refer to it, the most “dog-to-owner gaze, and dog-touching”, had a significant increase in oxytocin. Analysis proved however that it was the gaze that was having the greatest impact on oxytocin levels – not the petting or “talking” interactions. The same oxytocin increase was also identified in urine samples from dogs, but never the wolves. – Liat Clark, Wired
- Science proved you and your dog fall in love when you look in each other’s eyes, Zach Wener-Fligner, Quartz
- Hormones Show Dogs Don’t Just Think of Us As Providers of Food, Marissa Fessenden, Smithsonian Mag
- Dogs are man’s best friend thanks to bonding hormone, research shows, Ian Sample, Guardian Science
Paper #5. National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track
Our final High Five paper – yet again – raised debate in the scientific community and the public sphere. This time it was about sexism in STEM careers, or an apparent lack-thereof.
A study published in PNAS found that in a series of hiring experiments, contrary to prevailing assumptions, men and women faculty members from biology, engineering and psychology preferred female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males with matching lifestyles. Study authors Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci conclude: “Our findings, supported by real-world academic hiring data, suggest advantages for women launching academic science careers.”
According to the hiring data, fewer women applied for the STEM jobs, but of those who applied, they were hired at a higher rate than the men who applied.
[T]heir research suggests that women have the advantage, just because they are women and that competence wasn’t what was setting them apart. They sent identical applications to more than 800 tenure-track faculty in the US to consider, the only difference in these applications was the gender, and women were still the preferred candidate. – Julie Gould
Others were not convinced. Matthew R. Francis wrote about the study for Slate: “A vaunted new study says women have it easy in STEM fields. Don’t believe it.” He puts forward some very good arguments against the significance of the study’s findings.
Unfortunately, the study contradicts every other study about the problems women face in academia—and what’s more, their own research doesn’t back up their conclusions. Sexism is an ongoing problem in universities and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, with persistent bullying of female faculty, prejudice against mothers, barriers to promotion, and lower pay than male colleagues for equal work. (In fact, among all of these well-documented issues, focusing narrowly on hiring practices feels wrongheaded.) – Matthew R. Francis, Slate
Francis points out a variety of factors that might have impacted the study’s findings. “And of course there’s the question of whether people’s good intentions might cause them to respond to a survey differently than they would behave in real life,” he writes.
The unpleasant truth is that women face a lot more challenges in STEM than university hiring practices. Williams and Ceci cloud the issue, both by their methodology and by their conclusions, which are contradicted by other research. We need to confront biases head on if we’re to fix the problem of sexism in STEM, a problem we can’t simply explain away with surveys and op-eds. – Matthew R. Francis, Slate
- Nature Job Podcast: http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2015/04/29/tenure-track-women-have-the-advantage
- Are women finally getting ahead in science? Tim Sandle, Digital Journal
- Women Scientists’ Academic-Hiring Advantage is Unwelcome News for Some: Part 1