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Sensational Science: Army Origami to Space Infections
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Sensational Science: Army Origami to Space Infections

Another month, another list of sensational science headlines offenders. Below I’ve outlined a couple of other recent examples of how the headlines that the popular press shares with the public don’t always match up with what the scientific press actually reports. Or, as in most cases, how the report is twisted in such a way to make for a good “story”.

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The Gist: Since antibodies can’t hold up in sensors used in war zones the military is going to use DNA origami to substitute the antibodies and sense for biowarefare agents. Quote: “The Army’s newest way to spot smallpox outbreaks…”

The “Study”: ARMY STTR 11.A PROPOSAL SUBMISSION INSTRUCTIONS

The Twist: None of this has been accomplished- or even proposed by researchers yet! It’s just an idea that the Army is interested in potentially funding and has solicited grant applications along these lines.

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The Gist: Memristors (electronic components that “remember” the last voltage or current to be applied) have been created using “…literally, a combination of human and electronic parts.”

The Study: Human blood liquid memristor

The Twist: Since modern electronics are typically on the order of nanometers (while cells are micron sized) the concept of integrating electronics with cells is intriguing. However, the researchers basically made macro sized devices using whole tubes of blood. Oh, and memristors aren’t “rare” (like, say, Helium-3) but more like about as rare as 3DTVs.

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The Gist: Patients who knew they were getting a placebo still showed an improvement of their irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.

The Study: Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The Twist: Title should read “Placebos can work even when you know they’re sugar pills” – but only as long as the patient still thinks the treatment will help them. That is, in this study the experimental group was told that the pill will help them (it just happened to be sugar). A more useful control would have been telling patients that the pill is a sugar pill and will not help them (and then see if they feel any better).

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The Gist: Bacteria in space undergo a different gene expression such “that the zero-gravity environment causes some strains of bacteria to become more virulent.”

The Study: Transcriptional and proteomic responses of Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 to spaceflight conditions involve Hfq regulation and reveal a role for oxygen.

The Twist: It wasn’t so much the “space” or the zero-gravity that changed the gene expression, but the cell’s low fluid-shear microenvironment (which in this case happens to be caused by zero gravity). With respect to the bacteria spreading “more rapidly” or becoming “more virulent” the paper states clearly:  “Whether the observed changes in pathogenesis-related gene expression in response to spaceflight culture could lead to an alteration of virulence in P. aeruginosa remains to be determined…”

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Nick Fahrenkopf is a Ph.D. candidate studying nanobiosciences- applying physics and engineering concepts and techniques to biological and medical problems. Outside of his research he enjoys curling, and resists the urge to dig too far into the science behind it. Always skeptical, he enjoys debunking email chains and digging deeper into popular science articles and blog posts. Follow his most random thoughts on science on Twitter.

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Need to catch up with other recent Sensational Science headlines?

Scientists Make Computers with Gold and DNA

Researchers Link Processed Foods to Lower IQ in Kids

Science Proves Keeping a Diary Makes You Smarter

Facebook Stalking can Actually Kill You

Alcohol More Harmful than Heroin

Mexican Beer Dermatitis: Booze Plus Lime can Cause Nasty Rash

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Seen any other sensational science headlines recently?

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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. MissDNA

    wrote on April 20, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Are you kidding me- articles based on a proposal alone?! Trust me, I've written proposals… Even the authors know a decent chunk of what they're proposing is wishful thinking, at best.

  2. @FLOSciences

    wrote on April 20, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I wish is was a proposal- but it was a CALL for proposals!

  3. alan@benchfly

    wrote on April 20, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Frightening. That means there could also be an article titled "Graduate students enlist crying and praying to obtain PhD". But wait, that would be true…

  4. Sensational Science: Why It’s a Great Time to be in Science

    wrote on June 22, 2011 at 5:39 am

    […] DNA, these articles always catch my attention. But unlike the DNA origami that the Army enlisted is interested in, or the DNA used to make next-generation computers NaTI lattices that I’ve reported on in the […]

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