Science by press release.

With apologies to Jonathan Eisen for encroaching on his annoyance specialty, here is yet another case of science via press release.

Big hop forward: Scientists map kangaroo’s DNA

Taking a big hop forward in marsupial research, scientists say they have unraveled the DNA of a small kangaroo named Matilda. And they’ve found the Aussie icon has more in common with humans than scientists had thought. The kangaroo last shared a common ancestor with humans 150 million years ago.

“We’ve been surprised at how similar the genomes are,” said Jenny Graves, director of the government-backed research effort. “Great chunks of the genome are virtually identical.”

The scientists also discovered 14 previously unknown genes in the kangaroo and suspect the same ones are also in humans, Graves said.

The animal whose DNA was decoded is a small kangaroo known as a Tammar wallaby and named Matilda. Researchers working with the government-funded Centre of Excellence for Kangaroo Genomics sequenced Matilda’s DNA last year. Last week, they finished putting the pieces of the sequence together to form a genetic map. The group plans to publish the research next year, Graves said.

Scientists have already untangled the DNA of around two dozen mammals, including mice and chimps, which are closer to humans on the evolutionary timeline. But Graves said it’s the kangaroo’s distance from people that make its genetic map helpful in understanding how humans evolved.

By lining up the genomes of different species, scientists can spot genes they never knew existed and figure out what DNA features have stayed the same or changed over time. Elements that have remained the same are usually important, Graves said.

The research is an important step in the understanding of genomes in general, said geneticist Bill Sherman, an associate professor of molecular ecology and conservation biology at the University of New South Wales.

But another genetic researcher was more skeptical of the project’s significance.

“If you are in Australia and you want to show that you are a major player in genomics, then it’s important,” said Penn State University biology and computer science professor Webb Miller. “But two guys in their garage are going to sequence another marsupial very soon.”

Those “two guys” are Miller and Penn State colleague Stephan Schuster, who are working on a shoestring budget to map the genome of the Tasmanian devil, which is in danger of extinction because of a contagious facial tumor disease. Miller and Schuster said their project could lead to a way to keep the species alive.

But check out the last line for the biggest problem in the story.

This isn’t the first time Australia’s unique wildlife has provided evolutionary clues. Earlier this year, scientists mapped the DNA of a platypus and found that it crosses different classifications of animals.

No. They. Did. Not.



10 comments to Science by press release.

  • Jonathan Eisen

    I plan to publish a comparative analysis of the genomes of three microbes from Mars next year.

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  • Ed Yong

    Cool. It will be interesting to see how similar they are to the genomes of the unicorn and the pixie.

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  • Andy

    Generic press release for genome sequencing

    Scientists map genome of (insert name)

    A team of researchers from (insert university/institute/lockup garage) has completed mapping the genome of (animal/plant/squashy deep-sea thing).

    “We were amazed how (strike one) similar/dissimilar it is to the human genome,” said (insert name of lead scientist/grad student/custodian who happened to answer the phone).

    The discovery should help scientists (strike all but one) cure cancer/end world hunger/prevent hair loss).

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  • JK

    ok. aside from inaccurate and it being a bit silly what’s wrong with the article?

    Is there a problem with engaging the public (some of us are funded by them).

    Should we leave the media to the ID types and the anti-climate-changers?

    Sure it’s not a scientific forum but it is probably one that the majority of people use…

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  • T Ryan Gregory

    It bypasses peer review and goes directly to the public.

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  • Andy

    Speaking as someone who puts out press releases on research for a living, I certainly think it’s an important thing to do.

    What’s a bit strange here is publicizing the research ahead of publication in a journal. Usually that’s our gold standard for giving something some press.

    There are of course errors like the one about the platypus, and I’d like to work to avoid those, but I don’t think scientists should avoid doing press just because journalists sometimes screw things up. (Scientists have been know to get things wrong too.) Better to have stories out there, mostly right, than nothing but cranks and crackpots.

    I am, however, satirizing the generic genome press release because all of these stories sound pretty much the same by now…though the platypus one had some interesting wrinkles.

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  • JK

    Sure. But it gets people talking about science.

    It will recruit other scientists (like us) to the popular media to refute or maintain the findings.

    and besides, scandals and negative stories get the most press.

    so, if someone does post unfounded science it gets exposed, all the while introducing the public to the stringent peer-review protocols that are in place in science.

    in the end i thing it might encourage the general public trust the scientific community, not doubt them during critical moments -like during a federal election for instance.

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  • Jim

    JK said “in the end i thing it might encourage the general public trust the scientific community, not doubt them during critical moments -like during a federal election for instance.”

    I would argue the opposite. Claims are often inflated in these press releases. See Andy’s comment about curing cancer being a common press release tag line. How many overstated “should help us cure cancer” releases will the public tolerate before actually demanding the cure? This sort of hype cannot help in the long run.

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  • Anonymous

    Though it is not nearly as galling as the imprecise statements about the platypus, something that has annoyed me is the conflation of genome mapping and genome sequencing in the popular press. I can think of a few times where this has created confusion in my life.

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  • JK

    Jim said: “…Claims are often inflated in these press releases… How many overstated “should help us cure cancer” releases will the public tolerate before actually demanding the cure? This sort of hype cannot help in the long run…

    i agree, certainly not. and, if more scientists spoke to the media on a given issue then the true validity of the study would be revealed.

    This would put an end to the hype you spoke of and it would make researchers think twice before making grand statements.

    In an ideal world, the press might even evolve into a reliable source as a result of of scientific influence.

    I guess I see these hyped releases as good (perhaps necessary is a better word) in the sense that they are the selection pressure needed to move toward accurate press. And this comes from many people reading and critically thinking about what they are reading.

    So, I would maintain that if such wild claims get people (i.e. the general public) interested in science instead of i don’t know, say making sure they have the most recent iphone is this such a bad thing?

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