Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A fine distinction.

I'm trying not to be to picky here, seriously, I'm trying. Given the NZ Herald's penchant for being almost complete distortion of science stories, today's front page story isn't too bad. Which is not to say that it couldn't have quite easily been better. Technically, I suppose they have it right when they say there is a change in the DNA. The way they've written it though makes it sounds as if whole swathes of it are being re-written. Which it isn't. What they are reporting on is an epi-genetic change. See, DNA doesn't just operate all by itself. The presence or lack of various proteins can influence which parts of the DNA get used at any particular time. Or markers can added on to make various sections of the DNA more accessible (acetylation) or harder for the machinery of the cell to access (methylation). They are control mechanisms that operate on the DNA - thus, epi, from the Greek, meaning on or above. If the changes that the study has found are in the methylation or acetylation of the DNA then yes, I suppose you can get away with saying that's it's a change in the DNA. Given that most people are sufficiently familiar with the idea of DNA though, I think that it would have been easy enough for the article to have made the distinction in about a paragraph.  It's not a completely horrible article, it's just lazy.

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