Saturday, January 14, 2006

Decent Science Journalism

Recently I wrote a mild critique of a news article about brain cells. I pointed out the use of a tactic that made the article sound more important than it was. This, I argued, should not be necessary. A well-written science article should stand on the quality of its portrayal of the science.

This is from EurekAlert.org, apparently echoed from Harvard University's new release site. It is a good example of a journalist (or perhaps a PR person) describing the science in detail, and placing it in a meaningful context.
Long-term memory controlled by molecular pathway at synapses

[...] "It has been known for some time that learning and long-term memory require synthesis of new proteins, but exactly how protein synthesis activity relates to memory creation and storage has not been clear," says Sam Kunes, professor of molecular and cellular biology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "We have been able to monitor, for the first time, the synthesis of protein at the synapses between neurons as an animal learns, and we found a biochemical pathway that determines if and where this protein synthesis happens. This pathway, called RISC, interacts with RNA at synapses to facilitate the protein synthesis associated with forming a stable memory. In fruit flies, at least, this process makes the difference between remembering something for an hour and remembering it for a day or more." [...]
Well, maybe there is not enough detail there. Those of us with nothing better to do on a Friday night are left wondering exactly how they " have been able to monitor, for the first time, the synthesis of protein at the synapses between neurons." Note that the explanation of the significance of the stuff came from the investigator himself. All the writer had to do was ask, and not embellish it.

By the way, there is another notable item at EurekAlert. This one does have some details about the bench work:
Rockefeller researchers discover a biological clock within a clock Meyer, a physicist by training, found himself frustrated by how little he could see of what was occurring in a cell. "The truth is, we really don't know, mechanistically, what happens in the cytoplasm, and how things are being done in such a precise way," Meyer says. So he turned to a technique invented in 1948, called fluorescence resonance energy transfer; FRET gauges interactions between proteins by fluorescently tagging them and measuring how they react to different wavelengths of light. But although the technique can provide useful information, it's so complicated that researchers rarely use it. And no one had ever thought to use it to follow proteins in a single cell for an extended period of time.
They go on to explain that the FRET methodology, explaining that it enabled the researchers to study the interaction of two type of protein over a period of several hours, rather than capturing a single moment of the interaction. What they found was that the interaction between the two proteins -- somewhat like the resonant frequency of a crystal, used as a timekeeper in an electronic circuit -- acts as a fundamental, but figurative, egg timer within a cell.

This beings to mind a post I saw earlier today: Circadian Clocks are NOT designed! at Science and Politics. But that's another issue; I won't go into it here -- coutunix has done that already.

UPDATE: Coturnix is thinking about expanding upon the significance of the paper by Young, Saez, and Meyer on circadian rythms. Presumably, he will post it at Circadiana soon.