Two-for-one misconceptions about genomes from the New York Times.

To date, two identified human beings have had their genomes sequenced: J. Craig Venter and James D. Watson. Venter’s was completed in draft form in 2001 and the final version was completed recently. Watson received his genome sequence on disk (a hard drive, not a DVD as reported) from Jonathan Rothberg, founder of 454 Life Sciences, at Baylor College of Medicine yesterday. You can watch the presentation here.

The notion that individual people can have their genomes sequenced (still for about $2 million, but the cost will fall precipitously in the future) is sure to elicit some interesting discussions about medical applications, ethical implications, and intriguing research into human variation. Certainly, the completion of Watson’s genome sequence has already gained media attention. Unfortunately, the same old catchphrases and errors abound. Apparently, even the mighty combined forces of Genomicron, Evolgen, and Sandwalk are insufficient to stop this.

Today, both RPM of Evolgen and Jonathan Badger at T. taxus take aim at the New York Times, who not only confuse sequencing with “deciphering”, but think that Watson discovered DNA in 1953 (Genome of DNA Discoverer Is Deciphered by Nicholas Wade).

To clarify, DNA (“nuclein”) was discovered by Friedrich Miescher in 1869. Watson and Crick elucidated the double helix structure of DNA in the 1950s, based on the results of decades of work on the chemical properties of the molecule by a large number of researchers.

I give full credit to Watson and Crick for their monumental contribution, which rightly garnered them the 1962 Nobel Prize. But credit is also due to Miescher and the countless others whose work was integral to the subsequent rise of molecular genetics and genome sequencing.

Here are two headlines announcing the same story, one inaccurate and the other fine:

Genome of DNA Discoverer is Deciphered (New York Times)

Nobel Laureate James Watson Receives Personal Genome (ScienceDaily)

Is one less catchy than the other? It seems to me that getting the history and the science right would be relatively simple and would only add to the strength of a story.



The Genetic Genealogist mentions the story and argues that Nicholas Wade may not be responsible for the headline. Fair enough — my criticism is about the entire presentation, whether that be the fault of the author, editor, or other. It does bear noting, however, that Wade has used this terminology several times previously, including describing it in the main text as the “project to sequence, or decode, the genome.”

Sandwalk has opened a discussion about whether readers would (or, like Larry, would not) want to have their genomes sequenced.

DNADirectTalk repeats the standard inaccuracies.

I don’t think we’re going to be rid of the “decoding” analogy any time soon, especially since sequencers themselves use it. Venter has a book coming out in October, with the unfortunate title A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life. (Wouldn’t The Sequence of My Life or My Life’s Sequence have been catchier anyway?). The US Department of Energy (which financed much of the Human Genome Project) still has it on their website Human Genome Research: Decoding DNA also. To be fair to science writers, we can’t hold them to a higher standard of terminological accuracy than applies to scientists. In other words, we need to clean it up on our side first and then, hopefully, reporters will follow our lead.

2 thoughts on “Two-for-one misconceptions about genomes from the New York Times.

  1. To be fair, it seems entirely feasible that the errors here are not due to the science journalist. First, remember that newspaper headlines are written by headline “experts” (who know nothing about science) and not by the author of the article – it’s easy to see how “discovered the structure of DNA” could have been harvested from the opening paragraph and mangled to become “DNA discoverer” in the headline.

    Next, I’m not familiar with the editorial process, but don’t these articles get “cleaned up” by (scientifically illiterate) copy editors after they’ve been written? Notice that “sequenced” is used correctly later on, “deciphered” occurs only in the opening paragraph – perhaps the copy editor simply replaced the word thinking that “deciphered” sounds less technical and therefore better for the important opening paragraph?

    If my speculation above is correct, your beef is really with editorial policy and not with science journalism.

  2. “Science journalism” includes all aspects of reporting science because the final product is all that readers encounter. Whoever is at fault (I said the “New York Times”, not the author per se), the story contains mistakes that should be easy to correct without affecting the interest level of the piece.

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