This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Monday Science: There Be Dragons, Says Bloke

IT was the news that I had been waiting for for years. ‘Antarctic Lake Vostok yields 'new bacterial life'’ claimed BBC News Online last Thursday. ‘Unclassified Life Found in Antarctic Lake’ claimed RIA Novosti. ‘‘Unclassified and unidentified’ life found in Antarctic lake’ claimed the Telegraph. My eyes widened, and my heart started to beat a little faster.

Russian scientists have been drilling into Lake Vostok, a lake that has been sealed beneath 2.3 miles of permanent Antarctic ice for between 14 and 25 million years, since 1998. What they might find in the waters it contains piqued the interests of scientists around the world, myself included. Imagination ran wild as the possibilities were considered — if anything lived down there (and early tests suggested it might) it relied on an unknown energy source, since no light can penetrate the glacier above, and it would have been geographically isolated from other life forms for so long that it would likely have diverged on to its own evolutionary path. In short, if anything lived down there, it would be unlike anything we have ever seen.

But drilling was slow progress, held back by the triple whammy of isolation (Vostok Station is extremely isolated, even by Antarctic standards), inhospitality (it is the location of the coldest ever recorded temperature on Earth, a frightening -89⁰C) and concerns over contamination of the lake by the drilling process. Researchers got within 50 metres of the lake surface in 2011, and to the lake surface itself in 2012, but were forced to withdraw before analysis could begin as Antarctic winter drew in.

After 15 years of painstakingly slow work, teasing followers hoping for news, it was therefore a disappointment that a team from the United States beat the Russians to the achievement of being first to drill into an Antarctic lake, accessing Lake Whillans, which is covered by a not insubstantial 800 metres of ice. Furthermore, initial water samples showed that Lake Whillans “definitely harbours life”, according to a researcher on the team. A British team also came very close to accessing Lake Ellesworth, 2.1 miles beneath the ice.

Now, finally, samples from Lake Vostok are now on the research vessel Akademik Fyodorov, which will depart Antarctica for Russia in May. On arrival, water and ice samples will be sent to institutes in St Petersburg and Irkutsk for further analysis, estimated to be published later in the year or early 2014. But herein lies a problem: analysis is not yet complete, nor verified, and yet the news has already been broken to the wider world. It is now established: life has been found in Lake Vostok.

Or has it?

That news came in the form of a quote from Sergei Bulat, of the genetics laboratory at the St Petersburg Institute of Nuclear Physics, and distributed by the RIA Novosti news network. He claimed that the sample contained bacterial DNA that is only 86% similar to any known species, and is therefore unique to science. This raised much fanfare, and the story spread rapidly across news networks. What has spread less rapidly was the retraction just two days later. Vladimir Korolyov, also from the St Petersburg Institute of Nuclear Physics, told the Russian news agency Interfax that no such life forms were found.

Science has an established procedure when it comes to publishing results. PNAS Direct Submissions aside, which work differently, results are presented in papers that are peer reviewed — an academic journal coordinates the opinion of at least three carefully selected, but anonymous, experts (or ‘referees’) on the paper, in turn suggesting revisions or further experiments, rejecting or accepting the paper for publication. Once accepted, the paper is scheduled for publication, and any press releases are arranged to coincide with this date, written while the paper itself sits under embargo. This is how journalists can all report on the same discovery on the same day, whereas we bloggers tend to review retrospectively. The system is not without flaws, as referees may reject a paper unfairly for personal or professional reasons, and many results get trapped in a form of limbo, bouncing between journals, unable to get published. Nonetheless, peer review has many advantages: principally, it stops scientists saying whatever they want without proof. The press has no such process.

It therefore raised suspicions on Thursday when the Lake Vostok story broke. Every variation of the news story cited as proof only the quote of Sergei Bulat, without an official press release or an academic paper to support him. Some advice: whenever ‘scientists say’ is used as proof in a news article, with no further reference, run away. Quickly.

As we have seen, no peer-reviewed analysis on the Vostok samples will be available until later in the year at earliest. Until that happens, this discovery is as good as non-existent. That is not to say that life does not live in Lake Vostok — and goodness knows we all hope it does — but until then our evidence amounts to, simply, “some bloke said”.

So what of the US discoveries in Lake Whillans? These, too, were reported based on a scientist’s statement, this time John Priscu of Montana State University. He spoke of bacteria in water samples that could be seen under microscopes, and of bacterial growth from these samples when applied to Petri dishes. It all sounds much more plausible, but again, he could say anything he likes without the validation of peer review. I’m not saying that he is lying, simply that, scientifically speaking, we can’t believe him until his methods and results have been verified by someone else. Yet the news headline cannot be revoked.

This is indicative of a growing and worrying trend: that of crying wolf in the scientific world. We are under pressure to create impact in our work. Outside of such pressures it is nonetheless tempting to go for a news scoop, and media outlets are always keen to present current, exciting scientific developments. At the same time, we are more than happy to let them, keen as we are to inspire and to tell the world how exciting our subject is. Through historic vigilance using the scientific method and peer review, science and scientists have, rightfully, gained a reputation of being trustworthy. The trouble is, now that we have such a reputation, we can say whatever we like and people will believe us. Therefore, we must be more vigilant, not less.

As scientists we have a choice. Either we open our pre-peer review statements with “According to our experiments, which have yet to be externally verified, we think that…”, or we bite our tongues and wait for results to pass through the established channels.

In February, a press conference was held to announce that DNA analysis on a body found buried beneath a car park in Leicester confirmed that it was that of King Richard III, who died in battle in 1485. Some information on what tests were carried out was revealed in order to substantiate the claims, but once again the headline was revealed before the carefully scrutinized data. At the time I supported this move — it got people’s attention, it inspired them to know more about genetics, archaeology and heritage — but whilst I am certain that the scientists would not dare to make such an announcement without being certain, imagine how embarrassing it would be should, post-peer review, the conclusion be reversed?

I want there to be life under Lake Vostok. I want it to be something we have never seen before that will blow our minds and expand our views on nature and evolution. I remain hopeful, but we must be careful. Do not believe everything you read.

With thanks to Andrew Jermy (Nature) and Josh Neufeld (University of Waterloo, Canada).

Here's a picture of me as an Antarctic explorer in the walk-in freezer at the International Antarctic Centre, Christchurch, New Zealand. I thoroughly recommend a visit - there are penguins, you can ride a Hagglund, and, if you're lucky (and get excited by these things, like I do), you might get to see a plane take off from the adjacent Christchurch airport, destined for McMurdo. Following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, I urge you to spend a little on Christchurch tourist ventures if you are able. In researching this article I was saddened to read that the Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi House in Christchurch has closed indefinitely following the earthquake, but relieved that all staff, visitors and most of the animals made it out alive.

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