The long-running saga of research on the ‘memory of water’ has reopened with a splash, with libel suits being filed against three scientists — including two Nobel prizewinners — by Jacques Benveniste, the French researcher who claimed in 1988 to have shown that extreme dilutions of antibody solutions could retain their biological activity (see Nature 333, 816; 1988).

The charges are based on statements made by the scientists in January in the newspaper Le Monde which suggested that Benveniste's research may have been fraudulent.

A court battle is now on the cards. This week, lawyers representing two of those being sued — Georges Charpak, who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1992, and his colleague Claude Hennion, from the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris — said they intend to fight the libel charges, first on procedural grounds, but if necessary by investigating Benveniste's research.

A spokeswoman for a Paris-based law firm, Kahen and Associates, says that, as a civil servant, Benveniste should have filed a penal suit and not a civil one. If this is confirmed by the court, she adds, it would annul the procedure, and prevent Benveniste from suing again on the basis of the Le Monde articles — although he could bring new charges on any statements made by the scientists elsewhere.

But she adds that, if this first approach fails, the law firm is ready to counterattack in other ways. It could argue that Charpak and Hennion made their statements “in good faith”, or seek to prove that Benveniste did indeed commit fraud.

Lawyers representing François Jacob, who shared the 1965 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine and is also being sued, were unavailable for comment.

Benveniste describes the attempt to halt the suits on legal grounds as “pathetic”, and adds: “It is incredible that a Nobel prizewinner, with the sense of responsibility that this [status] carries, could affirm that his scientific colleague was a fraudster and then try to get off with legal arguments.”

Benveniste says that none of the scientists has provided proof of fraud, and he decided to sue to defend his honour and professional integrity. He claims that he wrote to the scientists earlier this year saying that if they retracted the statements he would not take further action, but that he received no reply. He says he will seek damages of FFr100,000 (US$17,000).

The controversy includes Benveniste's more recent research, in which he claims to be able routinely to transmit biological activities to water or cultured cells electronically, to store such signals on computer di scs, and to send them over the Internet.

Benveniste, whose laboratory was closed in 1994 by INSERM, the national biomedical research organization, now operates from the privately funded Digital Biology Laboratory at Clamart near Paris. He admits difficulty in raising the laboratory's running costs of FFr100,000 a month, but predicts that “when it takes off it will be the next Microsoft”.