Friday, January 17, 2014

The locust genome is not the largest

World's Largest Animal Genome Belongs to Locust: New Insight Explains Swarming, Long-Distance Migratory Behaviors is a headline that goes through the internet as we speak and it is simply wrong! Although this locust has a 6.5 Gb genome that is twice as large as ours it falls way short compared to the actual record holder, the African Lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus) with 139 Gb. There are also some salamanders and newts that have larger genomes. Don't believe me? Check this database.

Too bad, this is only because somebody did a lousy job writing the original press release. The authors of the associated paper stated something else - Here we present a draft 6.5 Gb genome sequence of Locusta migratoria, which is the largest animal genome sequenced so far. So it is the largest sequenced genome so far and not the largest animal genome. That is a big difference. I wonder if nobody proofread the release before it went out.

Although this looks very much unintentional it reminded me of yesterday's blog post by Larry Moran in which he shows the results of the combination of bad papers and hyperbole press releases. To stand out in the mass of excellent research published every day papers are often accompanied by press releases that exaggerate the findings. A couple of infamous controversies (e.g. ENCODE, Arsenic-associated bacteria) should have waken everybody to the problem at hand but frankly I don't see any real reaction in the community. That is particular concerning if you consider that many press releases are not actually read by a journalist or editor specialized in science. Most of the modern news aggregators are machines and if there is human intervention it has to happen in such a short time that such errors slip through all the time. Our locust genome size mistake has already been picked up by 20 news distributors and some of them (such as Eureka or Science Daily) are actually considered reputable. We can only lean back and see what the writers in the press will make out of it.

We as researchers have to be more careful with the news we pass on to the press. In the worst case there won't be anybody doing a final fact-check and once misinformation is out there it is hard to get rid of it and it will multiply rapidly. It is a pity in this case because the actual paper on the locust genome is pretty good.

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