"New" bacteria from Lake Vostok is not actually new (or from Lake Vostok)

"You can say anything you want in a press release". Sadly, that sentiment is too true. Turns out, recent reports of the discovery of previously unknown bacteria in samples hauled up from the waters of Antarctica's frozen Lake Vostok have turned out to be premature. The bacteria turned out to be contaminants carried by the drilling and collection apparatus. At Scientific American, Elizabeth Howell talks about this flub in the context of other stories where scientists bypassed peer review and announced findings to the newspapers first.


    1. Before they even started, the rest of the world was screaming at them that they were going to contaminate the lake and to wait until they could do it properly.

  1. I think I might have missed something here.  I understand that their bacteria samples weren’t actually from the lake, but does that 86% figure still mean they’ve found a new variety?

    1. “does that 86% figure still mean they’ve found a new variety?”

      2 sentences later-

      “We found certain specimens, although not many. All of them were contaminants”.

      1. Well yes, but what does “contaminant” mean – stray bacteria from somebody’s grubby hands?  Whatever it was, when they tested it they got that 86% figure which says they’re a new variety?!

        And as other people have pointed out, they’ve just introduced those into a thousand cubic mile lake.  Although hopefully that’s akin to accidentally releasing a breeding group of lions onto Mt. Everest.

  2. When I first encountered the initial story about this lake and the supposed ‘new’ bacteria in it, the first question that jumped to my mind was: How sure are they that they hadn’t contaminated the lake by drilling into it? Guess I was right to think that.

  3. Is this really an issue though? I don’t mind being told that some scientists might have found something.  Because they might have, and at the time they also thought they may have found something. Now we’ve had the chance to test it properly and it turns out they didn’t.

    That’s what science is all about isn’t it?

    Sounds to me more of an issue with the media jumping onto stories and not publishing them with the appropriate amount of uncertainty.

    1. I guess it depends on how complicit the scientists are in building expectations and not maintaining context.

      I read an article this weekend about an rTMS device developed by a local company. The real story was that it had a longer service life and lower operating cost than existing products, but the article (from a national news organization up here) focused on the use of Kickstarter-style fundraising and some off-the-cuff remarks from the CEO.  There was one mention of the fact that rTMS is only FDA-cleared (although they said “approved”, not technically correct) for Major Depressive Disorder, but the rest of the article (including the headline) made it sound like this was an approved and effective treatment for anything “depression” related and that it could replace drug therapy.  The CEO actually said that rTMS, and his device in particular, could be applied to Autism, Parkinson’s, and PTSD… That was incautious, bordering on fraudulent since it was part of the pitch to investors.

      This was published for mass consumption, so I can understand how some of the necessary context was left out, but the CEO is a PhD and I would expect him to be more cautious and precise by nature.

  4. Looking at this as though it isn’t really anyone’s ‘fault’ you might say the problem is there is no ground between a yes and a qualified yes. Either you notice and report the qualification or you don’t. Headlines require brevity. Reporters do not write headlines. Scientists speak in a different more careful way than the rest of us. All these things are contributors to the entropic dissolve of the idea as it wends its way through the multiple skeins that naturally occur in communication. What I am saying is that it becomes the readers problem to know how much to credit the source or not and take away what is there to be had. The comment become a public version of the internal dialogue. We hash it out. Each of us playing our roll as skeptic or fanatic or what have you. Ideally, we all come to some understanding, public dialogue or not, that is not an exact duplicate of what we have read. Communicators communicate and readers read. We do our jobs with the tools at hand and compete in the agora to see which ideas survive,. Culture inches forward, like the shell of a clam growing epitaxially along an edge no one can even perceive.

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