Major Journal Retracts Controversial Paper on the Dangers of Microbeads

Oona M. Lönnstedt
Oona M. Lönnstedt

A wave-making article on the effects of plastic microbeads on sea life has been retracted by the journal Science after an independent review board found its authors “guilty of scientific dishonesty.”

The original study, published in June 2016, reported that ingesting plastic microparticles like those found in cosmetics and toiletries made baby fish “smaller, slower, and more stupid,” and overall less likely to survive, as Mental Floss reported at the time.

Oona M. Lönnstedt

These conclusions were not terribly surprising, as other studies have found that plastics and the chemicals that cling to them can significantly affect animal behavior, growth, and mortality. But this particular study raised some serious red flags for other experts in the field.

In response to allegations of misconduct from the scientific community, the authors’ institution, Uppsala University, ordered a preliminary investigation, which was inconclusive. But the concerned researchers had also notified the Central Ethical Review Board of Sweden (CEPN), which launched a more thorough investigation of its own.

As experts began poring through their files, authors Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv contacted Science to notify the publication that their data was missing and could not be recovered or examined—the result, they claimed, of a stolen laptop. In response, Science published an Editorial Expression of Concern.

Back in Sweden, CEPN hired ichthyologist Bertil Borg of Stockholm University to review the work, and Borg found Lönnstedt and Eklöv’s paper to be riddled with problems and holes. “The suspicions of deceit cannot be denied,” he wrote to the board.

The CEPN group’s final report [PDF] was damning. In addition to the missing data, the board found that the authors had failed to acquire the right ethics-board permissions to experiment on the fish—and that it’s possible they may never even have conducted the experiments. The report concluded that Lönnstedt and Eklöv’s responses to the allegations “have been in all essentials deficient, at times contradictory and have not infrequently given rise to further questions.”

The report chided Science, one of the most prominent scientific journals in the world, for ever publishing the study in the first place.

Despite telling the journal that they disagreed with elements of the report, the authors requested on April 28 that it retract their study, and on May 3, Science did just that.

Some researchers feel a retraction is not a sufficient response to the extent of the authors’ misconduct, and have pressed Uppsala to investigate further.

“We take what has happened very seriously,” university representative Johan Tysk said in a statement. “It may damage confidence in the University and in research. It is also very difficult for all those involved. We intend to thoroughly review all aspects of the case, but we cannot say at present exactly how we will go about this.”

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]