Research Outreach blocked me on Twitter

Research Outreach Twitter screenshot

Screenshot from June 12, 2019.

When I published “Is Research Outreach a rebranded Research Features” yesterday, I went to Research Outreach‘s Twitter page, which is linked from their homepage. I was going to tag them in the tweet accompanying the post, since I like to let people to know what I’m saying about them. To my surprise, I found that I had been blocked. The reason this was surprising is that I don’t think I had followed them. I certainly never interacted with them.

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Is Research Outreach a rebranded Research Features?

Research Outreach cover

I wrote some pretty critical stuff about a magazine called Research Features after they contacted me as a potential subject of an article. Research Features’ website calls it a magazine, but what it really is is a collection of very slickly produced press releases, which are paid for by the scientists they feature. I found this sketchy, and I said so:

What’s sketchy about this is that it’s self-promotion passing itself off as journalism. Research Features calls itself a ‘digital magazine’…It’s full of what look like articles, though their authorship is not attributed. They’re not articles, though; they’re ads. Ads for researchers, ads for labs.

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What’s the harm?

Demon-Haunted World cover

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” –Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

I spent half a week in May at the outstanding Evolution of Complex Life conference here at Georgia Tech. The organizers, all grad students and postdocs, put together a fantastic lineup of speakers from a wide range of disciplines, including biochemists, evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and philosophers.

Friday was devoted to two panel discussions, one (roughly) on interdisciplinarity in science and one (roughly) on science education and outreach. Given the diverse backgrounds of the panelists, there was a surprising amount of agreement on, for example, the costs and benefits of getting involved in research outside one’s own field and the value to society of scientists stepping outside the ivory tower.

I agreed with most everything that was said in these discussions, so of course I’m going to focus on one of the few things I (mostly) disagreed with. In truth, this isn’t so much a reaction to the panelist’s comment as it is an excuse to finally write about something that’s been slow cooking in the Crock Pot that is my brain for quite a while now.

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Fungi are old

Earlier this week, I wrote that fungi are weird. Fungi are also old. Probably.

Recently discovered fossils from Arctic Canada have been interpreted as fungi, an important finding since the sediments in which they were found date to 0.89-1.01 billion years ago, around half a billion years older than the next oldest unambiguously fungal fossils. Corentin Loron and colleagues have described microfossils from the Grassy Bay Formation and presented several lines of evidence that they represent ancient fungi.

Loron et al. 2019 Fig. 1

Figure 1 a-g from Loron et al. 2019. Microphotographs of Ourasphaira giraldae specimens. a, Sketch of O. giraldae, displaying the main features of the microfossil. b–g, Unornamented terminal sphere (spore). Transmitted light microscopy images show specimens with secondary branching at a right angle (b, d–g), with terminal spheres connected together (c), with a bulbous connection (e) and with tertiary branching (d, f, g). Arrows show septate connections.

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Fungi are weird

I think about the evolution of multicellularity a lot, and I talk about it with colleagues. One of the things we talk about is what general principles we can infer from the many independent origins of multicellularity, for example in land plants, animals, red algae, brown algae, green algae, and fungi. Those are the groups that have evolved what we might call complex multicellularity, and one of the things we notice is that they all develop clonally; that is, they start out as a single cell, and when that cell divides, the daughter cells stick together. We notice that complex multicellularity has never evolved in species with aggregative development, when free-living cells come together to form a multicellular body, as they do in cellular slime molds and myxobacteria. Some aggregative developers have evolved a couple of different cell types, but all of the groups that have reached higher degrees of complexity develop by cell division and the products of cell division staying together. All, that is, except for fungi. Fungi are weird.

Fungi don’t really develop clonally in the way I’ve described, but they don’t really not develop clonally either. That’s because their cells don’t divide in the way we’re used to thinking about, through repeated rounds of mitosis. In mitosis, duplication of the genome is coupled to cell division: the chromosomes duplicate, they move to either end of the cell, then the cell divides. The chromosomes double, then they halve, so the daughter cells end up with the same number as the mother cell. That’s not how it works in fungi. Instead, they form filaments called hyphae (singular hypha) that grow at the tip. In some cases, partitions called septa (singular septum) form behind the growing tip, dividing the hyphae into individual cells. In some cases, no septa form, and each hypha is effectively one long, skinny cell with lots of nuclei (this is called a coenocyte).

So fungi don’t really develop by repeated rounds of cell division in the same sense that animals, plants, etc. do. Hyphae just grow, and they are divided into cells as sort of an afterthought, if they are divided into cells at all. Fungi with coenocytic (or aseptate) hyphae aren’t really even multicellular in the same sense as plants and animals are. Different people have different qualifications for what counts as multicellular, but it’s a stretch to call something multicellular that doesn’t have multiple cells. Fungi are weird.

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