The Nobel disease meets DNA teleportation and homeopathy

I’m tired.

Well, not exactly. I think I’m just suffering a case of what I like to call “anti-vax burnout.” It’s been a busy couple of weeks on the antivaccine front, given the new set of revelations about Andrew Wakefield, including even more detail about the nature of the scientific fraud he committed and previously untold information regarding just how extensive his business plans were to profit from the MMR scare that his fraudulent science was instrumental in launching in the U.K. Regular readers know that, from time to time, when the news about the anti-vaccine movement is coming fast and furious and I feel obligated to blog about it, I sometimes start to feel this way. When that happens, to avoid burnout, I need to step back for a day or two (or three or four) and blog about something else for a while. In this case, I need to do even more than that. I need something light and fluffy, amusing and silly. And what could be sillier than homeopathy?

Actually, I think I might have the answer. I just saw an article entitled Foundations Of Science Shaken: DNA Can Teleport Says Professor Jeff Reimers. Teleporting DNA! Awesome! Now there’s just the remedy I need for my Wakefield fatigue! After all, when I see woo this entertaining, I can’t help but smile, no matter how much my blood pressure might have risen in outrage at the latest revelations about Wakefield. Get a load of this:

Professor Jeff Reimers, of the University Of Sydney in Australia, has concluded from experiments that DNA can mysteriously be teleported.

From the work Reimers has completed, Nobel Prize winner, Dr Luc Montagnier believes that there is evidence that DNA can transport electromagnetic imprints of itself to cells within the body which it has absolutely no contact with, according to the New Scientist which released the results yesterday.

How the process occurs is now up for debate as Professor Reimers projects that enzymes are tricked into believing that the electromagnetic imprints projected by DNA and mistaken as real.

Holy Star Trek, Spock! Where’s Scotty when you need him?

First of all, it’s hard not to note that Luc Montagnier is back again. As I pointed out recently, after having been awarded the Nobel Prize, Montagnier has gone woo. But not just woo, the most hilariously bogus woo of all, a woo that, for it to be true, would require that much of what we know about physics, chemistry, and biology be not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Yes, indeed, we’re talking about homeopathy, although I only learned about the homeopathy angle in the context of discussing how Montagnier has decided to study dubious therapies for autistic children. Clearly, Montagnier has come down with the Nobel disease, as evidenced by his pursuit of autism quackery, his reporting that DNA can generate radio waves, and, above all, his embrace of homeopathy.

But what about Jeff Reimers? I had never heard of him before; so before I look at his claims I invoked almighty Google, and Professor Reimers does appear to be a real chemist. In fact, he is even listed as having won awards, such as the Royal Australian Chemical Institute Award and being inducted into the Australian Academy of Science. His University of Sydney webpage lists his research interests as:

  • Solvent efffects on molecular properties
  • Interpretation of infrared and electronic spectra
  • Electroabsorption spectroscopy
  • Structure and function of photosynthetic reaction centres
  • Design and operational principles of molecular electronic devices

When I see a story like this, I often wonder whether the scientist’s work is being represented accurately. A bit of clicking and searching rapidly brought me to this New Scientist article entitled Scorn over claim of teleported DNA. One thing that became clear is that Professor Reimers is not the person who did the experiments (they came out of Luc Montagnier’s laboratory), although he was quoted as saying that these experiments “would be the most significant experiments performed in the past 90 years, demanding re-evaluation of the whole conceptual framework of modern chemistry.”

I suspect not.

Let’s take a look at what Montagnier appears to have done:

Luc Montagnier, who shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 2008 for his part in establishing that HIV causes AIDS, says he has evidence that DNA can send spooky electromagnetic imprints of itself into distant cells and fluids. If that wasn’t heretical enough, he also suggests that enzymes can mistake the ghostly imprints for real DNA, and faithfully copy them to produce the real thing. In effect this would amount to a kind of quantum teleportation of the DNA.

Hoo boy. Not surprisingly, these experiments have not been published in the peer-reviewed literature; so it’s impossible yet to determine what, exactly, Montagnier did and what he is claiming. In other words, we have publication by press release, a huge red flag for quackery or pseudoscience. A Nobel Laureate like Montagnier really should know better. Unfortunately, whatever led him to go woo apparently also led him to abandon standard scientific protocol for reporting experimental results to fellow scientists. Once you go woo, I guess, you don’t come back.

But I still don’t know exactly what Montagnier did and what he believes he has found. So let’s look a bit farther:

Full details of the experiments are not yet available, but the basic set-up is as follows. Two adjacent but physically separate test tubes were placed within a copper coil and subjected to a very weak extremely low frequency electromagnetic field of 7 hertz. The apparatus was isolated from Earth’s natural magnetic field to stop it interfering with the experiment. One tube contained a fragment of DNA around 100 bases long; the second tube contained pure water.

After 16 to 18 hours, both samples were independently subjected to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a method routinely used to amplify traces of DNA by using enzymes to make many copies of the original material. The gene fragment was apparently recovered from both tubes, even though one should have contained just water (see diagram).

DNA was only recovered if the original solution of DNA – whose concentration has not been revealed – had been subjected to several dilution cycles before being placed in the magnetic field. In each cycle it was diluted 10-fold, and “ghost” DNA was only recovered after between seven and 12 dilutions of the original. It was not found at the ultra-high dilutions used in homeopathy.

OK, now things are starting to come into focus. I do PCR. Before I found myself rising to more administrative positions and laboratory supervisory roles and even well into the time after I became a PI, I’ve personally run thousands of PCR assays. I’ve done PCR since my graduate school days in the early 1990s, back when PCR machines took up half a benchtop and there was only one PCR machine in the entire department where I earned my PhD. I know PCR. Whenever doing a PCR experiment like this, it’s very, very important to rule out contamination, because it’s incredibly easy to amplify contaminating bits of DNA. For example, it’s very easy to amplify human DNA sequences if those sequences are found in the skin because skin flakes are virtually everywhere humans are and are amazingly good at finding their way onto the surfaces of Eppendorf tubes where PCR reactions are run. PCR can be incredibly sensitive, which is why it doesn’t take much contaminating DNA at all to produce false positive amplifications of a sequence of interest, particularly when doing PCR with a lot of cycles or sequential PCR. That’s because PCR does not discriminate between contaminating DNA and the DNA of interest. There is even a phenomenon known as primer dimer, in which somehow the two primers used to start the reaction can hook up at their ends and form a template to allow PCR amplification to proceed. This usually produces short sequences whose size is equal to approximately twice the length of the primers. Many are the PCR experiments that have been ruined by contamination–including my own. That’s why negative controls are absolutely essential.

I saw no description of adequate negative controls.

As much as I hate to do it given my Wakefield fatigue, let’s bring it on home to the example of Andrew Wakefield. You might recall that in followup experiments he claimed to find measles sequences in the gut of autistic children. As you might recall, PCR expert Stephen Bustin eviscerated Andrew Wakefield’s work during his testimony in the Autism Omnibus proceeding by pointing out that the the lab used to measure measles sequences was also used to grow up and isolate the plasmids containing measles sequences used as positive controls was the same laboratory where the PCR was run. If Montagnier did the same thing, there was the potential for major contamination that PCR could easily pick up. Even if he didn’t, the potential for contamination was still there, and it doesn’t take much.

Sometimes, tracing the source of contamination can be incredibly difficult. Indeed, I remember a several month period in which I kept getting a positive signal for my gene by PCR in the distilled, deionized water. I did everything. I scrubbed down the desks and work benches. I replaced all the water in the lab. I scrubbed down all the scales and cleaned out all the pipetman. We basically went crazy in the lab looking for potential sources of contamination causing the false positive signal. We even started changing PCR primers. Nothing worked. Then, just as suddenly and mysteriously as it appeared, the false positive band disappeared. Strange are the ways of PCR. Particularly intriguing with respect to possible contamination as a cause of Montagnier’s reported results is the fact that he reports that he had to carry out multiple dilutions to achieve the results. The more handling of the water, the more dilutions, the more potential for contamination. At least, that’s how it appears to me.

So was Montagnier snookered by contamination? I don’t know. He might or might not have done adequate controls, but there’s no way of knowing from which is true from the descriptions of the experiments in this article. I also wonder if he tried multiple different DNA sequences. If his result is robust, one would expect that it wouldn’t depend on the use of any specific 100 bp DNA sequence–or that it would require a 100 bp sequence. It should be observable with many sequences. I’d also want to know why Montagnier chose 100 bp as the length of DNA sequence he amplified. Why not 200 bp? Or 1000 bp? Above all, I’d be absolutely insistent on a number of appropriate negative and positive controls and a double blind design for handling the samples and running the PCR. (I’d bet money that this latter control wasn’t done.) Only then would I start to wonder if something real is going on. Even then I would want to see replication by other laboratories before I would start to believe it. No scientific result that has only been shown in one laboratory should be taken as anywhere close to definitive, and I don’t care whose laboratory demonstrated it.

Even if Montagnier’s results were replicated, I’d still be very skeptical of Montagnier’s explanation for his results:

Physicists in Montagnier’s team suggest that DNA emits low-frequency electromagnetic waves which imprint the structure of the molecule onto the water. This structure, they claim, is preserved and amplified through quantum coherence effects, and because it mimics the shape of the original DNA, the enzymes in the PCR process mistake it for DNA itself, and somehow use it as a template to make DNA matching that which “sent” the signal

And Montagnier wonders why people think he’s caught the “Nobel disease.” We already know that water does not have “memory,” as homeopaths claim. Well, not exactly. It’s that whatever “memory” water has lasts on the order of picoseconds. There’s no known way that water can “remember” the structure of a large molecule long enough that an enzyme could not only recognize it but duplicate and amplify it. Once again, given how well established the science is that says that homeopathy can’t work and that water doesn’t have memory that lasts anywhere long enough to do what homeopaths claim, in order for Montagnier to convince scientists that his results are correct and that they indicated the “memory” of water, he’s going to have to come up with evidence on the order, in terms of quantity and quality, of the evidence supporting the science that concludes that his experiment can’t work.

I also find it rather amusing how homeopaths and those who have fallen under the spell of homeopathy always manage to find more “explanations” for how homeopathy allegedly “works.” Be it John Benneth’s “nanocrystalloids,” Bienveniste’s “memory of water,” or (now) Luc Montagnier’s “teleporting” DNA (and presumably other molecules), homeopaths are prolific when it comes to thinking up post hoc explanations for the most ridiculous pseudoscience there is. It goes precisely in the wrong direction, too. Before coming up with a mechanism to explain a scientific phenomenon, in general, it’s a good idea to demonstrate that the phenomenon is actually real and reproducible. Homeopathy fails on all these counts. Again.

There, now. That was a nice break from all that depressing contemplation of Andrew Wakefield.