Worst science by press release of the year: nitrogen fixation in crops

Well, this is one heck of a science – by – press release case.

Was pointed to this press release: World-Changing Technology Enables Crops to Take Nitrogen from the Air which comes to us from the University of Nottingham.  It makes some really bold claims like

A major new technology has been developed by The University of Nottingham, which enables all of the world’s crops to take nitrogen from the air rather than expensive and environmentally damaging fertilisers


This ground-breaking development potentially provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. The implications for agriculture are enormous as this new technology can provide much of the plant’s nitrogen needs.


Applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular) via the seed, it provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen. Plant seeds are coated with these bacteria in order to create a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship and naturally produce nitrogen.


N-Fix is a natural nitrogen seed coating that provides a sustainable solution to fertiliser overuse and Nitrogen pollution. It is environmentally friendly and can be applied to all crops. Over the last 10 years, The University of Nottingham has conducted a series of extensive research programmes which have established proof of principal of the technology in the laboratory, growth rooms and glasshouses.


There is a substantial global market for the N-Fix technology, as it can be applied globally to all crops. N-Fix has the power to transform agriculture, while at the same time offering a significant cost benefit to the grower through the savings that they will make in the reduced costs of fertilisers. It is a great example of how University research can have a world-changing impact.


The proof of concept has already been demonstrated. The uptake and fixation of nitrogen in a range of crop species has been proven to work in the laboratory and Azotic is now working on field trials in order to produce robust efficacy data. This will be followed by seeking regulatory approval for N-Fix initially in the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Brazil, with more countries to follow.

Sounds f$*@#$# awesome.  So awesome that it was picked up by multiple news sources including
The only problem is – they don’t present any evidence.  None.  No data.  No paper.  No poster.  Nothing.  It is simply a press release with a bunch of words. Ridiculous.  I think I am going to announce I have a way to not only get all crops to fix nitrogen, but that it will work by telepathy.  This is one of the worst science-by-press-release cases I have ever ever seen.

UPDATE 7/27/13

Richard Conniff, who was the one who pointed me to the PR has a post about this too: http://strangebehaviors.wordpress.com/2013/07/27/best-news-ever-in-agriculture-or-utter-bullshit/

Lies, damn lies, and press releases – trouble with recent PR about autism and microbiomes

Uggh.  Just saw a bunch of stories about autism and the microbiome.   Many of the comments in the news stories I read seemed, well, not so good.  So I decided to sniff around.  Seems that many of the comments and stories are based on a new PLOS One paper and the comments and press release from the group behind the paper.

Here is the press release I found: Clues about autism may come from the gut.  From Arizona State University.   So I read it.  But I had a hard time getting past paragraph 2:

In new research appearing in the journal PLOS ONE, a team led by Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, present the first comprehensive bacterial analysis focusing on commensal or beneficial bacteria in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

This did not sound true and sounded a bit overblown as I could have sworn I had seen other “comprehensive” studies of the microbiome in children with ASD. So first I decided to look at the paper.  And – thanks a lot – there was no link in the PR or the stories I had seen.  So I had to go to PLOS One and do a little searching and I found it:

Reduced Incidence of Prevotella and Other Fermenters in Intestinal Microflora of Autistic Children

Kang D-W, Park JG, Ilhan ZE, Wallstrom G, LaBaer J, et al. (2013) Reduced Incidence of Prevotella and Other Fermenters in Intestinal Microflora of Autistic Children. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68322. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068322

So – first I asked – did they make the same claim in the paper or was this just in the PR?  Usually such things are just in the PR but amazingly they have this claim in the paper too, with lines like:

“previous studies describing the relationship between autism and gut microbes have either mostly focused on the emergence of harmful bacteria or mainly paid attention to already-known beneficial bacteria”

So I decided to then look at Pubmed and Google Scholar for other papers on autism and the microbiome. Here are some that I found:

Not all of these are what one would call comprehensive.  But some of them are at least approaching the scale of what was done here.  And surprisingly, not all of them are cited in the new study.  In particular, the papers by Gondalia et al including one on “Molecular Characterisation of Gastrointestinal Microbiota of Children With Autism (With and Without Gastrointestinal Dysfunction) and Their Neurotypical Siblings” is not references despite it doing some similar things.  I guess, if you don’t cite other comparable studies, and pretend they don’t exist, then that makes one’s work seem a but more novel right?  Weird not to cite that work though – not sure why that happened.  And certainly some of the other studies, even though they are cited, seem like they could be referred to as comprehensive.  I mean – Ian Lipkin’s study did metagenomics not just PCR based sequencing.  Isn’t metagenomics sort of more comprehensive than PCR?  
Anyway – let’s just say this is not the first “comprehensive” study of autism and the microbome.
Moving on in the press release I encountered another painful statement.

The work also offers hope for new prevention and treatment methods for ASD itself, which has been on a mysterious and rapid ascent around the world.

Just what exactly does this new study say about prevention or treatment?  Actually, as far as I can tell – nothing.  So this is a bonus overselling statement just for the PR
Oh but then the PR just get’s worse:

Their new study is the first to approach autism from a different angle, by examining the possible role of so-called commensal or beneficial bacteria.

Seriously?  We have gone from trying to claim this is the first comprehensive study of the microbiome and autism to now saying it is the first?  Fu#*(@@# ridiculous.
Other lines that are troubling are encountered further on including
  • The authors stress that bacterial richness and diversity are essential for maintaining a robust and adaptable bacterial community capable of fighting off environmental challenges.”.  Hmm.  What is the difference between richness and diversity? And what is the evidence that they are essential for such functions?
  • The species is a common component in normal children exhibiting more diverse and robust microbial communities.”  Again – what makes that robust?
  • Michael Polan’s recent New York Times Magazine story on the microbiome points to the fact that he is proud that his gut microbiome is rich in Prevotella regarding it as a possible sign of a healthy non-Western diet.  Really?  They brought Michael Pollan (with a mis-spelling that might be on purpose so that Pollan does not see this) into their PR?  Uggh
Anyway – I kind of wanted to give them an overselling the microbiome award for some of their statements.  But in the end I would rather give them an “Overselling ourselves” award.  It is a shame too.  I think continuing to explore possible connections between autism and the microbiome will be important.  Making misleading statements about what you have done and not citing / properly referencing other work will not help.

Digging around in National Science Foundation "news" is mostly a lesson in science by press release

Last week I wrote about how the National Science Foundation was involved in a painful press release about microbial genomics and evolution: Ugg – story about gene transfer/evolution based on NSF press release has a NASA-esque smell.  Today after getting some emails from people about this I decided to look to see if this was unusual or just what NSF press releases tend to look like.

I went to this site: News – US National Science Foundation (NSF) and decided to look at the links for stories I might know something about.  Here are some of them – a mix of NSF Press Releases and Links to outside PRs.

Alas most of these have some issues – some more than others.  Going through them one by one

Untangling Life’s Origins.  Link to an outside PR about work supported by NSF.  Not so bad – some painful stuff in the PR like the following:

  • “They are not the standard trees that people see in phylogenetic analysis,” he said. “In phylogenetic analysis, usually the tips of the trees, the leaves, are organisms or microbes. In these, they are entire biological systems.”
  • But overall reasonably tolerable compared to the others.
Home Toxic Home.  Link to an outside PR.  Filled with really painful stuff. Some examples
  • Most organisms would die in the volcanic sulfur pools of Yellowstone and Mount Etna. Robust simple algae call it home, and their secrets to survival could advance human medicine and bioremediation. ”  Everything could advance human medicine and just about any other topic if you stretch it.  And it is a big stretch to find any connections here.
  • “Michael Garavito, Michigan State University professor of biochemistry and molecular biology was part of a research team that revealed how primitive red algae use horizontal gene transfer, in essence stealing useful genes from other organisms to evolve and thrive in harsh environments. ”  Ahh.  Back to the same general story that got me riled up to begin with.  This also has the fun “primitive” reference for algae which are not in any obvious way primitive. 
  • The algae’s membrane proteins are biologically quite interesting because they’re receptors and transporters, the same classes of proteins that play key roles in energy metabolism and human immune response,” said Garavito. “This has applications in human medicine because virtually all of the important pathways that contribute to disease treatment involve membrane proteins.” So let me get this straight.  The algae has membrane transporters and receptors.  And therefore it is relevant to studies of human disease because many diseases are due to problems in transporters and receptors.  So – what organism on the planet then would not be relevant?  Uggh. 
  • They then clarify “What makes the algae’s membrane proteins attractive as a model for humans is their robustness. Other traditional candidates, such as yeast, insect cell cultures and slime mold, are fragile. The algae give researchers extra time to manipulate and examine their membrane proteins.”  Oh.  I see.  So nobody has ever thought of this before.  No work has ever been done on organisms that are “robust” as a model system.  Like – say – thermophiles?  Wouldn’t that be cool (or hot) to work on.  
  • There is more. I will not cover it.
Genetic Study of House Dust Mites Demonstrates Reversible Evolution.  Outside PR that is just completely full of crap.
  • A few days ago I posted about this to Facebook and to Twitter.  
  • And it still riles me up.  Some lines to treasure:
  • In evolutionary biology, there is a deeply rooted supposition that you can’t go home again: Once an organism has evolved specialized traits, it can’t return to the lifestyle of its ancestors. 
How to Thrive in Battery Acid and Among Toxic Metals.  This is the specific PR that got me riled up to begin with.  Awful.
“True Grit” Erodes Assumptions About Evolution.  Actually this one seems OK.

While most of what I looked at that seemed painful was from outside groups – I wonder whether NSF does any screening of outside press releases before posting them to their News site.  Given how bad some of the NSFs press releases are I am not so sure how they deal with outside PR.  But why aren’t they linking to actual news stories by real journalists?  Instead they simply link to PRs from groups supported by NSF.  Yuck.

IBM will save the planet with this magical hydrogel – NOT

Well, press releases can drive me crazy.  And this one is one of the worst I have seen in a while: IBM News room – 2013-01-24 IBM and The Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology Develop New Antimicrobial Hydrogel to Fight Superbugs and Drug-Resistant Biofilms – United States

This new fangled gel they have made they are very proud of.  That is good.  Pride in ones work is a good thing.  But getting the science wrong and making misleading statements is not.  Some statements I have issues with include

  • Able to colonize on almost any tissue or surface, microbial biofilms – which are adhesive groupings of diseased cells present in 80% of all infections – persist at various sites in the human body, especially in association with medical equipment and devices.
    • Huh?  Diseased cells?  What does this even mean?
  • When applied to contaminated surfaces, the hydrogel’s positive charge attracts all negatively charged microbial membranes, like powerful gravitation into a blackhole.
    • Again – huh?  How is this like gravitation in a black hole?
  • However, unlike most antibiotics and hydrogels, which target the internal machinery of bacteria to prevent replication, this hydrogel kills bacteria by membrane disruption, precluding the emergence of any resistance.
    • This is the killer statement.  They have apparently invented a treatment that no organism can resist.  It is therefore perfect.  Sort of like, well, penicillin?  Oh no, wait.  Sort of like chloroquine.  Oh no, wait.  I mean, sort of like streptomycin right?  Sorry – I meant tetracycline.  No no – I meant …. aaaaaaaaaaarrg.
I could go on.  Sounds like a possibly interesting new development.  But when you make absurd claims about it, and get the science all messed up, it does not give me that warm fuzzy feeling.  Annoyingly some news sources are basically just quoting from the PR with no skepticism.  For example, see this Daily Mail article. And this blip in The Star.  At least this in “The Conversation” has some comments on this being possibly overblown.  Anyway, shame on IBM for being more about hype than science.