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Family history wins gene debate

Nature volume 509, page 403 (22 May 2014) | Download Citation

The buzz in science social media this week included a great deal of genetics, spurred by a May meeting on genome biology, as well as a bit of scientific soul-searching and a healthy dose of whale faeces.

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Discussion on social media about a recent genetics talk propelled a five-year-old paper into the limelight. Yale University bioinformatician Mark Gerstein, while at the Biology of Genomes meeting in Cold Spring Harbor in early May, live-tweeted a provocative quote from Stanford University geneticist Mike Snyder's talk: “Your genome is [a] better record of your family history than your family.” A lively Twitter debate ensued. Geneticist Leonid Kruglyak of the University of California, Los Angeles, following the conference hashtag from afar, chimed in with a dissenting view: “Family history wins: Predicting human height by Victorian and genomic methods.” He linked to a 2009 paper showing that a simple average of the parents' heights could predict a person's height better than a genetic profile of 54 locations along the genome. When alerted to the social-media chatter, Snyder was pleased. “It's a very healthy conversation,” he says.

While at the meeting, Yaniv Erlich, a computational biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, triggered online activity by tweeting “Our Hitchhiker Guide to Genome Hacking” and linking to a review on genetic privacy that he co-authored. It describes ways to breach genetic privacy, such as by using publicly available genomic data to trace identity or revealing a person's sensitive information from a DNA snippet. The authors go on to suggest how researchers can tighten up genetic security.

Erlich, Y. & Narayanan, A. Nature Rev. Genet. http:/ (2014)

This popular conference, one of the biggest in genomics, generated links to another paper published during the event, co-authored by Stanford University geneticist Carlos Bustamante, one of the meeting's organizers. He tweeted about his team's work on Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in a glacier in Europe more than 20 years ago. A previous analysis of Ötzi's genome had suggested that he was most closely related to modern Sardinians. The latest work pulled together whole-genome sequencing data from modern and ancient Europeans to strengthen the link and reveal patterns about agricultural migrations. Some researchers were more interested in the big picture than Ötzi himself: “Ancient farmers from present Bulgaria, like those of Sweden, Italy, Germany & Spain, related to modern-day Sardinians”, tweeted Harvard University geneticist Pontus Skoglund.

Elsewhere on Twitter, clinicians praised an intimate, first-person narrative by palliative-care physician Diane Meier about one of her patients, Jenny, who was dying of lung cancer. Meier describes Jenny's experience with an oncologist who kept ordering more tests and treatments, even as it was becoming clear that therapy wasn't working. Meier poignantly writes how she came to understand the reason for the oncologist's overtreatment. “I don't want Jenny to think I'm abandoning her,” the oncologist said. The problem, Meier says, is that physicians are trained to diagnose and treat disease, not to manage pain and symptoms as life draws to an end. “Great story showing why #palliative care is complementary to #cancer care, and necessary!” wrote Duke University oncologist Thomas LeBlanc.

An essay titled 'Why Do We Still Have Journals?' prompted some soul searching about scientific publishing. “Answer: the review process. Not sure I agree but worth reading,” tweeted University of Missouri social scientist Peter Klein. In his essay, Jerry Davis of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, writes that journals add value by certifying research, convening a community of scholars, curating content and “civilizing” new authors by teaching them how to write. Debate spilled over into the blogosphere. Aaron Barlow at New York City College of Technology wrote on the Academe blog that the evaluation of scholarly work needs to change. “Simply relying on the status of publication venues (or on their means of review) should no longer be acceptable.” And in a comment on the Retraction Watch blog, Philipp Bielefeldt of the University of Bonn asks, “If there were absolutely no structures behind how you publish things — how could you assure a certain quality?”

And finally, ocean lovers were delighted to read about evidence that blue whales help to fertilize Antarctic waters, supporting fish populations. Trish Lavery at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and her colleagues show that the whales' iron-rich faeces stimulate plankton growth, which boosts krill populations. The mammals produce just enough nutrients to generate the krill that they in turn consume. The work refutes the 'whales eat fish' argument that policy-makers have used to support commercial whaling as a way of protecting fish stocks, the authors say. Fisheries scientist Trevor Branch of the University of Washington in Seattle bestowed the whales a hashtag: #PerfectRecyclers.

Lavery, T. J. et al. Mar. Mammal Sci. (2014)

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