All truths are half‐truths

I reviewed three papers for three top journals ( JIFs higher than 5.0; I emphases the “top” because those journals actually control the hot topics in the field) in plant science over the whole weekend. I really can not believe my eyes that three papers have exactly the same framework although the names of genes (of course the functions are different) were not the same. They found (identified) a mutant which is related to drought tolerance (sensitive). The gene, that encodes an XX- associated protein, was cloned by using a map-based approach. Then, the functions of the gene were analyzed at multiple levels using agronomical, physiological, biochemical, and statistical analyses (in one of the studies, a comparison to other cloned genes in the same species and other species were also performed). Finally, the authors concluded that the gene controls the drought tolerance of the plants by regulating leaf morph-anatomy.

Does this road-map (protocol) make sense to you? It did to me before checking those three papers carefully. Now, I think this road-map is not always correct and helpful. Is what changed my opinion?

When I check the dataset provided by the authors, I found that the biomass, yield and yield components, leaf area, leaf thickness of the mutants were visually different comparing with their wildtypes. The biomass of one drought tolerance mutant in Arabidopsis has only 10% of the wild-type under normal condition, but the authors ignored all this information through the manuscript. In their manuscript, they highlighted that the biomass of wildtype declined more than 50%, and, they were excited that the decline in the mutant was 20%. But, the truth is that the wildtype still has a higher biomass under drought condition, and thinking about the situation: if you are the farmer, how do you select genotype for your farmland? Now, let’s thinking about this mutant from a “scientific” aspect: if a genotype has lower biomass and lower leaf area than another, it’s water consume highly likely will be lower, and, of course, it apparently has a higher drought tolerance when you growth them togather.

Overall, other two papers, to be honest, are very good job comparing with the similar published molecular papers in the field. However, some of the claims were also uncomfortable to me. I just give an example that happens in one of the papers (in fact, this problem appeared in hundreds of previous papers). The mutant declined the stomatal density by 20% comparing with the wild-type, and the conclusion was XX gene regulated stomata development. This conclusion was ‘supported’ very well by the data measured. The question is that the leaf area of the mutant was also declined about 20%, and more seriously the decrease of the leaf area was simply because the decline of the cell size. In this case, it is reasonable to rethink about the mechanisms behind the data.

Now, I think this road-map may still work well in some cases i.e. identifying the function genes catalyzing XX biosynthesis. But for identifying the physiological function of the gene(s) may problematic, at least the results may not the truths.

In 1954, Whitehead said:

There are no whole truths: all truths are half‐truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.

Nowadays, I think this is the epitome of the molecular field, in general.

Academy Lane, Davis, CA