Epigenetics Debacle - Do You Feel Sad for Sid Mukherjee?

Over the weekend, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sid Mukherjee published an article ‘Same but Different - How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture’ in the New Yorker magazine.


On October 6, 1942, my mother was born twice in Delhi. Bulu, her identical twin, came first, placid and beautiful. My mother, Tulu, emerged several minutes later, squirming and squalling. The midwife must have known enough about infants to recognize that the beautiful are often the damned: the quiet twin, on the edge of listlessness, was severely undernourished and had to be swaddled in blankets and revived.

The article received widespread criticism for turning black into white, which happens to be a common practice in the epigenetics field. For a detailed summary of criticisms by various scientists, readers may check the following two blog posts of evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. A couple of examples are included from many.

The New Yorker screws up big time with science: researchers criticize the Mukherjee piece on epigenetics

Researchers criticize the Mukherjee piece on epigenetics: Part 2

Wally Gilbert, Nobel Laureate, biochemist and molecular biologist, Harvard University (retired).

The New Yorker article is so wildly wrong that it defies rational analysis. Too much of the epigenetic discussion is wishful thinking seeking Lamarckian effects, and ignoring the role of sequence specific regulatory proteins and genes. (as well as sequence specific RNA molecules).

Sidney Altman, Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Chemistry at Yale University, Nobel Laureate:

I am not aware that there is such a thing as an epigenetic code. It is unfortunate to inflict this article, without proper scientific review, on the audience of The New Yorker.


Readers may note that the real criticism should be directed to NHGRI with its funding of unscientific ‘big science’ projects on epigenetics and epigenomic markers, and unscrupulous scientists technicians like Eric Lander, Manolis Kellis, Eric Green and several others, who benefit from this largess. In fact, many criticisms of Sid Mukherjee’s article are similar to what we had been writing over the years regarding various epigenome papers and projects.

In “The Conspiracy of Epigenome?”, we wrote -

We would have had to scratch our heads less, if Lander used conspiracy of epigenome instead. Nothing managed to derail this expensive boondoggle over the last four years, including powerful critics of the scientific principle behind it, fraud allegation against the leader, public humiliation of its sister project ENCODE, NIH cost-cutting and protest of the scientists, and so on. What appears even more puzzling is that despite all those prior events, the leaders of the epigenome project ended up making the same mistakes as ENCODE. Dont these clowns learn anything?


In NHGRIs Epigenetics Investments Starting to Pay Off, we highlighted several other epigenetics- related bogus discoveries press-releases from NIH-funded research.


In Epigenetics in Stem Cells Is It a Significant Paradigm Shift in Biology?, we wrote -

Nobody gets more angry about reference to epiginetics than famous biologist Mark Ptashne. The reason is simple. Epigenetics is not as harmless as paradigm shift. In addition to using bad word, it also introduces bad scientific concepts as explained by Dr. Ptashne.

Faddish Stuff: Epigenetics and the Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics

Ptashnes battle against epigenetics is not new. Few years back, he, Oliver Hobert and Eric Davidson rightly questioned about the wisdom of backing large epigenome projects.


In Epigenetics Explained, in the Context of Descendants of Holocaust and Slavery Victims, we explained -

The word epigenetics was introduced by biologist C. H. Waddington in 1940s to explain how the cells maintained their states during development.

For example, the muscle cells, once differentiated, continue to divide into muscle cells and the same is true for other kinds of cells, even though they all start from one universal mother cell and carry the same chromosomes after division. How does a cell get programmed into being a muscle cell or neuronal cell? Waddington speculated that there must be some epigenetic effect, because all cells continue to have the same chromosomes and therefore the same set of genes.

Please note that in 1942, there was no DNA sequence and Waddington was trying to explain things in abstract terms. In the following 60+ years, Waddingtons question was fully answered by geneticists and developmental biologists. It is found that the cells remember their states (muscle or neuron or kidney, etc.) through the actions of a set of genes called transcription factors acting on other genes through binding sites on the chromosomes. Both Professor Ptashne and Professor Davidsons labs did extensive research to elucidate the mechanisms, and Waddingtons epigenetics was explained through their work.


Eric Davidson’s book

One major criticism of Mukherjee’s article is on his claim that Yamanaka’s stem cell work was a proof of ‘epigenetic regulation’, when it was the exact opposite. Readers interested in learning about the real science behind how genomes and Yamanaka’s work connect together should start with Eric Davidson’s book previously discussed in our blog -

A Must Read Book, If You Like to Understand Genomes


Lastly, maybe it is time for Sid Mukherjee to pick up a real cause that would save other writers like him from future embarrassment.

Lets Discuss Is it Time to Shut Down NHGRI?

Written by M. //

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