Monday, May 9, 2016

Epi-what?

A recent article in the New Yorker on epigenetics is drawing rage from scientists far and wide, because it apparently lacks a few key perspectives.  I decided to read the article and attempt to weigh in since this is an area I am particularly interested in and one that I follow pretty closely.  Before I comment though, I would like to acknowledge the excellent standing of the writer of the article, Siddhartha Mukaherjee, on account of the Pulitzer Prize he received for his wonderful book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. This was a fine book and the recognition bestowed on the author seemed well placed to me, so what had gone wrong with the New Yorker article?

I read the article and for the most part enjoyed it.  Mukherjee weaves personal observations of his mother, a twin, with conversations on epigenetics with researchers  in the field.   These scientists have certain views, not all of which are accepted as mainstream.  One, for example, talks about an "epigenetic code"  which is not a broadly accepted concept. In the writing of the article, it seems Mukherjee down-played the role of transcription factors in the bigger epigenetics picture, and focused mainly on histone modification and methylation.  These terms are mumbo jumbo to most readers, but they are important to scientists. In the processes that modify the instructions of the genetic code there is a series of (sometimes unfortunate, sometimes not) events of which methylation and histone modification are rather downstream.  Transcription is nearer the top.  The fact that Mukherjee pretty much ignored transcription was what got him into hot water. Rather he waxed lyrical about the histones (because they are super interesting- little coils of DNA that expand and contract depending on how tightly they are bound), and about methylation.  He implied a stronger role for these elements than is currently accepted. Scientists from the field and a fair few outside of it called foul, and Mukherjee wrote rebuttals and explanations.  The article is an excerpt from a full book on genes that is yet to be published. He did not have time to go into all the details, he said, and quickly published an apology for omitting transcription factors and overextending speculations. However, reading his response to his critics it seems he wasn't so much sorry, as irritated.   And perhaps he had good reason.  As I read the complaints it seems like the critics all got together and decided on a response, then all said the same thing.  It seemed a bit witch-hunty to me but then I am not an epigenetics scientist.  I do think part of it had to do with what is extrapolation based on very early evidence, versus what the scientific establishment have accepted as fact. One critic even likened him to Deepak Chopra which seemed a bit excessive (I like Chopra for his edgy thinking, but obviously the Dawkins of the world do not share my affection).  I confess that I am way more comfortable with speculation than most scientists. I believe it is an essential part of the scientific process that gets us to eventual truth.

I would recommend you read the New Yorker article and decide for yourselves whether the author is scientifically accurate enough.  I felt he was, based on my limited understanding, but agree he over-emphasized some aspects over others. He also implied epigenetic changes can have lasting change which is a hotly debated area right now. My bigger interest though, is how easy it is for a writer to go from superstar to scourge of the earth; from Pulitzer Prize winner to scientific incompetent, in one fell swoop.  It happens very, very quickly, and I suspect Mukherjee will not recover easily from this experience. In the take downs there are also a fair few jabs at the New Yorker itself, for placing literacy juice over scientific fact.  Again, I have little beef with the New Yorker's style. I am a fan of the magazine and don't expect hard core science, but rather anecdotal tales with science in a supporting role.   Did Mukherjee take anecdote too far?  Read the article, and see for yourselves.  Let me know what you make of it.


References:
How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture, by Suddharta Mukherjee

A couple of criticisms appear in these links:
https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/the-new-yorker-screws-up-big-time-with-science-researchers-criticize-the-mukherjee-piece-on-epigenetics/ 
https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/05/07/laffaire-mukherjee-the-last-word/

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