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Genetic Linkage

How Kevin Spacey is Altering Our Genes

Ridiculous headline? It’s just about as ridiculous as the one that circulated the Internet last week, parroting a genetically-ignorant news release from UCLA.

Here’s the headline, this one from Science Daily: “Fructose alters hundreds of brain genes, which can lead to a wide range of diseases.”

Imagine that. I can bite into a peach and jumpstart genetic chaos. I can give myself diseases with a frappuccino. Would a jolt of the high-fructose-corn-syrup variety kill me?

The good news is that apparently a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reverse the rampant brain damage wrought by the evil sugar. The bad news is that the study was performed on 24 rats, counting the controls. And, of course, the science isn’t at all what the news release says it is.

The aggregators bit, bigtime, from Techtimes, to Science Newsline Medicine to True Viral News, which helpfully added that “fructose alters a whole lot of mind genes, which may result in a variety of illnesses".

I note that seasoned science journalists did not appear to have drunken the high-fructose kool-aid of the news release. I suspect it is the general assignment “content providers” who fell for it. So I decided to compare the hype to what's actually in the paper.

Just a Few Rats, Folks

The study set-up is pretty simple. Eight rats drank water. Eight rats drank water spiked with 15% fructose. Eight more rats drank water with fructose and an extract of flaxseed oil, rich in omega 3 fatty acids. I won’t get into the small sample size, because in studies like these, the statistics come from analyzing large numbers of genes.

The rats ran mazes, before and after the drinks. At 6 weeks, the poor beasts given the sugar water ran the mazes half as fast as either of the other groups. THAT’s the evidence that we should all worry about dastardly brain diseases.

The UCLA news release brings in the rodents in the 8th of 20 paragraphs, and starts misinterpreting the science in paragraph 11. The language repeatedly says “altered genes” but then says that “a biochemical group” binds to cytosine, one of the DNA bases. This told me they were talking about methylation. That is an epigenetic change, not a genetic change. Big difference.

The actual research paper describes transcriptomics and methylomics – that is, the researchers looked at messenger RNAs to see which genes were turned on (expressed) and they looked at which parts of the 20,000 genes they screened bound methyls, which turns genes off, in the rats. Here are the words from the Materials and Methods: “We analyzed the RNA transcriptome and DNA methylome using next generation sequencing.” They did not look at actual alteration of DNA.

Turning genes on and off is not the same as changing the base sequence of the DNA! I could not help but note the irony of a news release about gene expression screwing up its own expression of a technical paper. Which is what got me thinking about Kevin Spacey and gene expression in general.

A House of Cards Scenario

Everything we do affects the expression of our genes – that is, which proteins certain cells make under certain circumstances. When we eat, sniff a flower, see a car crash, pet a cat, scream at a rock concert, make love, deal with telemarketers, listen to Donald Trump, suites of genes turn on and off in the crescendo that is experience and life.

The last episode of season 4 of Netflix’s drama House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey plays nefarious President Frank Underwood, is tense and disturbing, with a mounting feeling of dread – except for Frank, of course.

As I sat there, mRNAs peeled off of the genes that control production of neurotransmitters and various stress hormones. Cells of my hippocampus, one of the sources of DNA targeted in the rat paper, were especially active as I recalled real events from the news identical to what was about to play out onscreen. I put my hand over my mouth, sat back, and closed my eyes – activating muscles. My stomach churned as transcription of the gastrin gene revved up. I gasped when the last scene was mercifully only reflected in the reactions of the characters.

Who’s to Blame?

I jest, but dumbing down science to the point that it is wrong and can unnecessarily worry people disturbs me greatly. So who’s to blame for yet another example of confusing gene change with gene expression? It is a chain of trust.

I suspect that the people who like and tweet the news reports – many thousands of them, for who wouldn’t want to pop a DHA tab and prevent Alzheimer’s? – trust the information to be accurate. The news aggregators are probably not even humans, but algorithms directed to reprint news releases from respectable institutions like major universities doing work funded by the NIH and published in a decent journal.

The writers of the news releases or public information officers who direct them, for someone at some point must actually write these things (I’ve done it myself), must trust that the researchers are describing their work accurately. In the optimal situation, a news release writer will run the draft of the release by the researchers before sending it everywhere. But how many researchers actually read the draft, or consider how their attempts to explain may gloss over important distinctions like genetic change and altered gene expression?

So, I hypothesize that the problem lies with scientists who do not take the trouble to explain this important difference to all who ask – or point it out when "content providers" don’t know enough to do so. And until that scrutiny happens, people will keep thinking that they can lose their minds from fructose.

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