What’s new(s) in science

I teach introductory biology courses to college students. It’s a busy time of the semester, with exams and assignments and the balancing act of all that goes on in and out of the classroom (for students and professors alike). To ease into our time in class together and provide some motivation to my students for learning the basics of biology, I occasionally start my class with science news that has recently crossed my path. Recent topics have included some I’ve already blogged about, such as Nobel prize winners, the death of the space probe Cassini, and the descendents of Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed cats riding out a hurricane, but also gene editing in human embryos, NASA’s study of twins in spacegenetically modified apples, among others.

I’ve been interested for years about which topics count as science news, and how the information filters down to me, my students, my friends, or you. My own general news habits have changed dramatically in recent years, and I suspect yours have, too. We used to all read the same few newspapers or watch the same TV networks. Now there are many choices and so much more information available any time you want it, even in the palm of your hand. Even science news–sometimes relegated to little coverage in traditional print or TV news–has its own distribution system online (at least if you go looking for it). Human health and diseases are popular topics, as well as climate change, space science, big discoveries, the environment…and of course the truly unusual findings, or curious creatures and observations. Everyone loves an underdog.

In general, new research findings are first shared among the scientific community through terse technical reports published in scholarly journals (to which scientists and academic libraries hold subscriptions), and increasingly online in free open-access journals and on preprint servers. Each article, written by the researchers themselves, is reviewed by a committee of anonymous peer scientists for relevancy and general methodology before final publication. Peer review has long tried to ensure a certain level of quality control on science publishing (though it is not without its flaws or critics, and some science doesn’t hold up in the end). A published scientific article can be read by other scientists to learn about new findings, approaches, and so forth. However, these articles are not really fun to read, and the technical details and terminology are challenging to navigate. (For an interesting recent viewpoint on the readability of scientific reports, see this link.) In my own educational training, I found that learning to make my way through a technical report can be a fun puzzle–but it was a skill that took years of training and practice to master. (I also enjoy the puzzle of editing articles written by others to make them clear to their narrow sliver of readership.) Now, I teach college students how to find and dissect these articles, as well as how to start mimicking this style in reporting their own experiments that we do in class.

But, when I’m scanning the week’s science news for stories to share, these articles aren’t what I’m reading (at least not at first). Like everyone else, I usually find out about science from secondary sources. Journalists who work for traditional news outlets report on science, and some news publications have their own science division. I also follow science news in traditional magazine publishers (now also online) such as Scientific American and National Geographic, and dedicated curators of science news such as ScienceDaily. Major scientific journal publishers, including Science and Nature, and open-access publishers such as PLOS also have news and blog sites for tracking science news. I can even sign up for social media updates from my favorite sites, or have lists of articles sent to my email inbox. These resources filter the science (and often provide links to the original reports)…and then social media outlets filter much of it out again based on algorithms I don’t entirely understand. And so I’m left with whatever I come across casually, or what I search for if I’m looking for news on a specific topic.

Increasingly, I’ve noticed that a particular topic might be picked up widely by various science journalists, science writers, and bloggers all. Suddenly, everyone seems to be writing about the same octopus antics, snails, gravitational waves, an endangered species, or nutrition debate, all at the same time. It’s exciting to see overlapping science coverage in the news, but it is certainly just the tip of the iceberg about what’s out there. What about all the science that never makes a headline? Let me tell you a story about one such topic: fir trees. What makes a specific type of tree its own species, with its own special traits?


Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). By Walter Siegmund (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One day a few weeks ago, I decided to scan the table of contents of science journals in search of something interesting (at least to me), but off the beaten path of what I’d seen in the news, just to see what would catch my eye. In the September 2017 edition of the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics, I found an article about DNA analysis of Douglas fir trees. I’m not a botanist, but I do like trees. Douglas firs are important for the timber industry in North America and other areas around the world, and they are also grown on farms (among other things, as Christmas trees). The article was written by more than 20 scientist authors from many academic and government research labs across the country. Their goal: obtain information about all of the DNA of Douglas fir trees to help scientists, forest management agencies, and tree farmers better understand the genetic traits of these trees. This approach, called genomics, can reveal huge amounts of information about a species. I decided it would be interesting to learn more about how genomics is being applied to study new questions in plant biology.

Genomics investigates the information storage of all of the DNA of any type of organism. The Human Genome Project was a famous early study in genomics. Back in the 1990s, it took many years to decode all that human DNA. But now, thanks to better computers, data storage, and other technological advances (called “bioinformatics”), scientists can decode (or “sequence”) and analyze the chemical Cs, As, Ts, and Gs of DNA from many species in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of early efforts. Nowadays, scientists are quickly cataloging the entire genome sequences of literally thousands of species from many groups of organisms to unlock the secrets of their cellular programming. Scientsts also can map out evolutionary “family trees”  called phylogenies based on the DNA data.

In their new article, David Neale and colleagues obtained the chemical readout of the DNA from Douglas firs. They then wanted to see what makes Douglas fir DNA unique relative to other tree species, and they found several genetic features (such as missing and extra genes in Douglas firs) to explore more thoroughly in future experiments. Adding Douglas firs to the growing collection of genomic catalogs will also help scientists understand the differences and evolutionary history of pine trees and their cone-bearing relatives and compare with the lineage that contains flowering plants.

The scientists also wanted to explore how a Douglas fir is programmed specifically to be a Douglas fir. For example, they discussed how Douglas fir trees need a lot of light to grow well, which is important to know if you’re growing these trees on a farm, or managing a forest over an extended period of time. The researchers identified interesting genes that help control specialized chemical reactions during photosynthesis in the leaves of the plant. These reactions help the trees grow well in bright light, but also make them less tolerant of shade. Learning more about the chemistry of leaves helps scientists understand more about how plants use solar energy to make their own food, and how different types of plants are adapted for different habitats and individual strategies for successful growth in forests around the world.

From the outset, even based on the article’s abstract summary alone, I could pretty much guarantee that this type of study wouldn’t have made it into the news. Like most scientific articles, the Douglas fir report presented a few new pieces of information (albeit an entire genome’s worth of information!) that built incrementally on an already large body of knowledge. Whole-genome sequencing isn’t new anymore, so although impressive in scale, these growing catalogs of DNA information are now interesting only to the people who can mine them to start new investigations of their own. Most people also don’t really think about or care about Douglas firs, or pine trees in general, or maybe even the health of forests.

Most new scientific articles are just like this one: specific in focus and incremental in contribution. Being able to describe something truly novel is rare, and therefore it seems more newsworthy when it occurs. Meanwhile, new studies build on old ones, and so sometimes science appears to move back and forth across ideas, sometimes contradicting but self-correcting through time. Each new study inches us slowly toward a better understanding of the world around us. I personally learned new things by reading this article that helped me appreciate genomics techniques, these magnificent trees, and their place on the planet…but like most of us, Douglas firs didn’t get their 15 minutes of fame in the news.

I know my daily science news is necessarily incomplete, and it isn’t going to take note of every new study. That would be impractical on many levels. But, seeing what’s in the news helps remind me of the broader goals of science and the wonder of discovery. I’m glad someone loves the story of the Douglas firs–or the creatures in the depths of the ocean, or the distant stars in the sky, or a nifty chemical reaction. I try to share some of that enthusiasm with my students, and also here and on social media. Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the work of science journalists and other science writers who are on the case of another good science story and will clue us in to the breakthroughs, the unusual moments, and the inspiring questions. I look forward to seeing where this week’s headlines will lead us.

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