Poor reporting: the anti-freeze that wasn’t

Generally, I don’t cover “mainstream” science reporting, but this is too poor to let it pass.

Nature Genetics features a fascinating article about the properties of haemoglobin from the extinct woolly mammoth. Briefly, the researchers sequenced DNA encoding haemoglobin subunits from a sample of mammoth bone and compared it with that of modern elephants. They then altered the modern elephant DNA sequence to match that of the mammoth, expressed mammoth and elephant protein in E. coli and compared the oxygen affinity of each protein. Their conclusion: the amino acid substitutions in mammoth haemoglobin result in an enhanced ability to release oxygen to tissues at low temperature.

You will not find the words “anti-freeze” anywhere in the article. Bear that in mind, as we survey the reporting of this story by various news outlets:

  • BBC Science News: Mammoths had ‘anti-freeze blood’, gene study finds
    Aside from the main headline, the BBC make a brave attempt and even link to the article. Later in the article though, we find “The mammoth DNA sequences were converted into RNA (a molecule similar to DNA which is central to the production of proteins) and inserted into E. coli bacteria.” Not quite correct: it’s DNA which is inserted into the bacteria, where it is transcribed to RNA, which is translated to protein. I’m guessing that someone has misunderstood the phrase “DNA makes RNA makes protein.”
  • The Scotsman: Secret of mammoths’ survival was blood like antifreeze
    In essence, this is an abbreviated version of the BBC story. It avoids the technical details and describes the main finding quite well: “They found mutations in the mammoth genes which would have enabled haemoglobin to release oxygen at low temperatures.” Nothing to do with anti-freeze, though.
  • The Guardian: Woolly mammoth’s survival secret? Antifreeze blood
    The Guardian is keen on the anti-freeze angle. As well as the headline they write: “The extinct beasts had a form of antifreeze blood…” A researcher is quoted as saying “It literally allows their blood to run cold”, which may indicate the source of the confusion.
  • The Telegraph: Mammoths ‘developed anti-freeze blood’
    This report is pretty much word-for-word as that from The Scotsman and again, chooses the “anti-freeze blood” headline.
  • ABC Australia: Mammoth blood protein brought back to life
    The ABC score points for avoiding the term “anti-freeze” entirely. They promptly lose them again for suggesting that proteins are alive, both in the headline and in the first line: “Adelaide researchers have played a pivotal role in bringing the blood of the extinct woolly mammoth back to life.” If we’re being generous, perhaps they mean “figuratively-speaking”.
  • The Daily Mail: Scientists use ‘Jurassic Park’ experiment to try to bring woolly mammoth back from the dead
    I saved the best (worst) for last. If you’re familiar with the Daily Mail, you’ll know that it’s essentially a comedy publication with no pretensions concerning fair, balanced or accurate reporting on any subject. It would be funny, were there not people who believe what they read. Gems from this story include: “Woolly mammoths could one day walk the Earth again” and “In an extraordinary Jurassic Park- style experiment…” as well as, of course, “antifreeze blood”, a brief summary of the movie Jurassic Park and a list of fascinating mammoth facts.

I realise that these are difficult concepts for people not trained in molecular biology and biochemistry, but this is a pretty basic error. This story is nothing to do with blood freezing or anti-freeze. There are organisms that synthesize “anti-freeze compounds” – small molecules and proteins – to prevent ice crystal formation, but that is not what is happening here. I’m sure if the journalists had asked the researchers “would it be appropriate to use the term anti-freeze?”, the answer would have been “No.”

At least, I hope so.

5 thoughts on “Poor reporting: the anti-freeze that wasn’t

  1. Al Dove

    I agree that this is pretty bad, but it just highlights that we as scientists have to do a better job of explaining science to the press (and thereby the public). Just by virtue of the topic you are asking them to step up a level, but you also have to be willing to simplify enough that they can work with it. If you don’t give them a snappy or sound-bitey phrase to go with, they’ll make up one of their own, which seems to be what happened in this case.

    I found Randy Olson’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist to be very helpful in this regard. I don’t always love his tone, but the message is good.

    1. nsaunders Post author

      I agree, we have a responsibility to better explain our findings. I also think that journalists have a responsibility to fact-check the final version of their story. It’s not clear what happened in this case; both of the press releases for the story are quite well-written and certainly do not mention anti-freeze anywhere. Perhaps as you say, someone has made up a sound-bite.

  2. Pingback: Mal periodisme: Els mamuts NO tenen hemoglobina anticongelant… « Blog-a-tope

  3. David Lovell

    Nice piece NS… In defense of some journalists, it’s the sub-editor who writes the title, and they write ’em to hook the readers. So, even if the journo is up to speed, there’s plenty of room for a slip twixt cup and lip (to curdle a metaphor or two :).

  4. nsaunders Post author

    Just to add, it’s well worth sending feedback to at least, the BBC, who have changed their headline since I, and presumably other people, wrote to them.

    I can see in 30 years time I’ll be one of those grumpy old blokes writing to newspapers (or whatever the predominant media becomes).

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