I get the impression that many journalists who write about biology know nothing about biology

My latest WTF moment is this article, Human chromosomes are only half DNA, which presents this little fact as if it is surprising and ground-breaking.

A chromosome is believed to be an “organized structure containing most of the DNA of a living organism.” However, new research finds that DNA makes up only half of the material inside chromosomes – far less than was previously thought.

Instead, up to 47 percent of a chromosome’s structure is actually a mysterious sheath that surrounds the genetic material, researchers from the University of Edinburgh said in a statement.

Say what? A university PR department strikes again, and an oblivious journalist scribbles it up. This is not news. This is not new. I’ve no idea how long I’ve been teaching this, but it’s been ages. Here’s Alberts’ Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th edition, from 2002.

The proteins that bind to the DNA to form eucaryotic chromosomes are traditionally divided into two general classes: the histones and the nonhistone chromosomal proteins. The complex of both classes of protein with the nuclear DNA of eucaryotic cells is known as chromatin. Histones are present in such enormous quantities in the cell (about 60 million molecules of each type per human cell) that their total mass in chromatin is about equal to that of the DNA.

And what’s with this “mysterious sheath” nonsense?

If you’re a reporter who’s never taken a basic cell biology class, you have no way of reasonably presenting the context around even a simple observation, so don’t even try, and never trust a university press release, because they’re typically written by people as ignorant of science as you are.


  1. anat says

    I happen to know some people who write press releases about research in biology. Indeed their knowledge of science isn’t great, and sometimes scientists need to spend some painful time with them to prevent this level of ignorance from being published while still not giving up on informing the broader public.

  2. stwriley says

    You don’t even need to have taken a college biology course to know this. My high school students learn about histones and other chromosomal proteins in our unit on DNA. They’d all be able to tell you that these make up a significant portion of the mass of a chromosome. So, apparently, science reporters actually know less than my high school kids.

    That’s just depressing.

  3. wzrd1 says

    We’ve been having a similar discussion over at Orac’s blog, with one commenter wanting all scientific studies, especially those involving medicine and “anything to do with public policy” (i.e.; global warming) to also have a version of the study written for the general public to understand.

    So, let’s have some fun, let’s get Bob the gas station guy and Jimmy, the burger flipper, neither of whom did well in high school able to comprehend immune modulator drugs, their function, contraindications, side effects, expected salutary effects and even what immune modulation is.
    You know, explain to Archie Bunker the difference between a T cell and B cell among those white corpsuckles (sic).

    Apparently, in that individual’s world, RA’s have nothing whatsoever to do after the paper is ready for peer review, so they can write something to teach the populace.
    After all, RA’s aren’t trying to get their own degree, right?

  4. whheydt says

    Actually… The problem is larger than stated. most journalists write about subjects they know little or nothing about…and then an editor puts his oar in, and he doesn’t know the subject, either. Pick up any newspaper. Find an article on something you’re familiar with, whether a subject, an event you attended, or an organization you’re part of. See how many errors you can find. Do NOT make it a drinking game. That would be hazardous to your health.

  5. handsomemrtoad says

    Many popular-science writers are morons, but some are very clever. My sister worked for SciAm for a while, and they asked her to write a headline for an article about coprolites. Her suggestions were: “On the Origin of Feces” and “In the Beginning Was the Turd”.

  6. briquet says

    Seems a bit unfair to put the blame primarily on the journalist when the universities, which is where the uneducated journalist should be able to go for information, is actively misleading them.

    And while it’s easy for me to say, I don’t think researchers should be accepting of the overhyped press releases either. I realize to 99% of the public he actual research often boils down to “researchers have illuminated one minor aspect of this process you weren’t familiar with anyway and we’re pretty sure it’s right because it’s really not surprising” but not everyone needs to try and be a celebrity.

  7. =8)-DX says

    I admit I’d forgotten that from high school bio, but I think I’d have managed to introduce so twisting and definitely not described it as something new: we were definitely taught cells were already known to be more complex then the basics being explains to us..

  8. blgmnts says

    maybe this extract from the relevant EurekAlert release

    Analysis of the images reveals that material containing DNA and supporting proteins — known as chromatin – accounts for between 53 and 70 per cent of the total contents of chromosomes. The remaining 30 to 47 per cent is composed of the chromosome periphery.

    clears it up a bit.

  9. Wounded King says

    I don’t think this is as terrible as you make out, the main problem is that they are conflating DNA and chromatin, they aren’t actually trying to pass off chromatin as a novel discovery. Even the RawStory article goes on to later describe chromatin as DNA and supporting proteins and distinguish it from the bound accessory structures the research was about. So they did apparently understand the distinction, they just decided to ignore it for a more hyperbolic title, which is ridiculous and stupid, but sadly par for the course for journalism in general nowadays.

  10. Marc Abian says

    because they’re typically written by people as ignorant of science as you are.

    I’m not taking exception to this, because I know this is not aimed specifically at me. It’s a general statement, which widely applies, but is not true in every case. I accept that unspoken caveat.

    I would guess many people here actually are quite knowledgeable about science, and it is right that they have not objected to this statement just because it does not apply specifically to them.

  11. petrander says

    In non-English speaking countries, even those with the highest level of proficiency in English, like here in Denmark, it is made even worse by journalists not understanding the English terms well enough. Several years ago, there was a news report out about how all species of Great Apes are currently threatened. Unaware of the difference between the English words “ape” and “monkey”, because no such distinction exists in Danish which has the blanket term “abe”. As a result, “great apes” ended up in Danish media as “store aber”, which basically comes across as “big monkeys (including apes)”.

    The correct translation of “Great Ape” is actually “menneskeabe”, literally “man ape”.

    Now of course, never mind, that “monkeys” are a paraphyletic grouping. Words have specific meanings and getting them wrong screws up the entire message.