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Technical issues provoke concern over biology paper

November 6, 2006 By Erika Check This article courtesy of Nature News.

Embryo results prompt editorial note in Science.

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Nature, which publishes a Corrigendum on research from 1993 in this week's issue (see ' Data handling causes image problem for top lab'), isn't the only leading journal to put out an editorial note in recent weeks. On 27 October, Science printed an 'expression of concern'1 about a developmental-biology paper published in the journal in February2. The short statement said that "there is an ongoing investigation of this study by the University of Missouri", home of the research team, and that "the results reported therein may not be reliable".

The paper claimed that a gene called Cdx2 was expressed in certain cells in mouse embryos after their first division, and that those expressing this gene went on to become specialized tissue. Only the cells that did not express Cdx2 went on to form the various cell types that make up the body. The finding was important, because there is a debate among developmental biologists about whether mammal embryos determine the fate of their cells at such an early stage.

Many in the field rushed to try to replicate the result; at least two contacted by Nature could not. "It was a shocking result, but that didn't immediately mean it was wrong," says Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz of the University of Cambridge, UK, who tried and failed to replicate the work. "It was very different from the result of our lab and most of the people in the field that I know. But we didn't know whether this was a mistake, or some absolutely amazing conditions, which made embryos behave in a different way in their hands."

Robert Hall, associate vice-chancellor for research at the University of Missouri at Columbia, confirmed that the university convened an investigation into the paper this spring. He would not say what triggered the investigation, which he anticipates should finish this winter. But Donald Kennedy, the editor-in-chief at Science, confirmed that the journalce received "concerns and a draft technical comment" about the paper from other investigators, and had forwarded them to the university. The journal has published an expression of concern once before last December, after an investigation found that South Korean cloner Woo Suk Hwang had fabricated data in papers related to stem-cell research.

The current paper's senior author, Michael Roberts, says that this paper is the only one under investigation. None of Roberts' three co-authors responded to e-mail enquiries from Nature. When asked whether he stood by the paper, Roberts said: "I'm not going to comment on the conclusions."

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References

  1. Kennedy D., et al. Science, 314. 592 (2006).
  2. Deb D., et al. Science, 311. 992996 (2006).

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