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PNAS will publish controversial papers, journal says

607px-Onycophora.jpgThe editorial board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) decided last week to publish two papers linked to academy member Lynn Margulis, a cell biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. PNAS editor-in-chief Randy Schekman had written Margulis over “apparent selective communication of reviews” of a controversial paper by non-academy member Donald Williamson, a retired zoologist from the University of Liverpool, UK.

Williamson’s paper, which was ‘communicated’ by Margulis under the soon-to-be-defunct ‘Track I’ submission route that allows academy members to handle the peer review process for their colleagues, was published online in August, but was held up from print publication last month following a report in Scientific American that cited Margulis as saying that she obtained “6 or 7” reviews before receiving the “2 or 3” positive ones that recommended acceptance. The publication of a second paper, co-authored by Margulis, was also suspended because of the controversy (see ‘Row at US journal widens’).

Both papers will now move forward, says PNAS managing editor Daniel Salsbury. Williamson’s paper, however, will be accompanied by a letter to the editor from Gonzalo Giribet, an invertebrate zoologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Williamson’s hypothesis that caterpillars arose from an accidental mating between butterflies and velvet worms “is the most stupid thing that has ever been proposed,” Giribet told Nature. “It’s like if I said that humans had sex with fish and then you get whales. It’s nonsense. It’s a non-scientific hypothesis.”

Williamson, who is writing a response that will be published alongside Giribet’s commentary, says that Giribet’s letter “missed the point” of the study by focusing on the evolutionary relationship between insects and velvet worms, rather than the possibility of hybridization. Giribet counters that he was short on space, owing to PNAS’s limit of 250 words and five references, and so he concentrated on only one of many criticisms.

The fate of a third paper, also communicated by Margulis, which was challenged by an anonymous PNAS editorial board member following acceptance by three anonymous reviewers, remains up in the air. The study’s author, John Hall, a computational biologist based in New York City who is an adjunct professor in the same department as Margulis, says he is currently preparing a response to the board member’s concerns about his methods used to compare gene sequences. Salsbury declined to comment on the status of Hall’s paper.

Image: Velvet worm from Wikimedia Commons


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    Anthony Baughn said:

    I have not yet had the opportunity to read Gonzalo Giribet’s commentary on Williamson’s thesis. However, Giribet’s comment that Williamson’s model is “like if I said that humans had sex with fish and then you get whales,” is clearly off point. Williamson’s model is attempting to explain the origin of metamorphoses. Whales are not metamorphic! In his model, Williamson suggests that metamorphism arose from successful hybridization between genomes of two adult animals, and that there lies a mechanism for expression of one morphotype at a time. Thus, it would have been more correct for Giribet to suggest that the model is similar to positing that ancestral frogs lacked metamorphic potential, and that this potential (ie tadpole stage) was acquired when an adult frog mated with an adult eel. Perhaps this idea can be used as further justification for sequencing the Electrophorus electricus genome!

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    Mong H Tan, PhD said:

    RE: Metamorphic genomics!?

    Williamson’s hypothesis: I present a molecular biological research proposal to test my thesis. By my hypothesis 2 recognizable sets of genes are detectable in the genomes of all insects with caterpillar grub- or maggot-like larvae: (i) onychophoran genes that code for proteins determining larval morphology/physiology and (ii) sequentially expressed insect genes that code for adult proteins. The genomes of insects and other animals that, by contrast, entirely lack larvae comprise recognizable sets of genes from single animal common ancestors.

    I thought that Williamson’s thesis on the possibility of “Caterpillars [being] evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis” is evolutionary sound and insightful, especially conceived in the current era of genomics; and that Lynn Margulis has had done the PNAS readership a just service!

    To the chagrin of most entrenched neo-Darwinism reductionists — such as one like Giribet, who has had myopically denounced Williamson’s hypothesis (quoted above) as “the most stupid thing that has ever been proposed," and further told Nature (by his typical and nonsensical neo-Darwinist reductionism) that “It’s like if I said that humans had sex with fish and then you get whales. It’s nonsense. It’s a non-scientific hypothesis.” — Williamson’s daring thesis may well open up a new avenue for further research into the genomics of metamorphosis, in insects!?

    Best wishes, Mong 10/20/9usct2:57p; practical science-philosophy critic; author “Decoding Scientism” and “Consciousness & the Subconscious” (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

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    Gonzalo Giribet said:

    Dear all, I am really sorry that they quoted my comments, a bit out of context, in such a way. But it is true that there is no scientific basis for the hybridization of two animals from two different phyla, such as insects (an arthropod) and velvet worms (an onychophoran). The analogy of fishes and humans having sex was given by me to a non-scientific friend (and that’s what I told the Nature reporter) to try to explain phylogenetic distances—which is fact are larger between insects and velvet worms than between mammals and fishes. Again, the mistake of talking to a reporter and not seeing what they write before it goes public…

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