Friday, December 28, 2007

"Tabloid Language" in Nature Neuroscience

Disco Drosophila

By now, everyone has read about the so-called "homosexual" (actually bisexual) fruit flies (Grosjean et al., 2007):1
Study finds gay gene in fruit flies

SUMMARY: Scientists have found that a gene can turn on and off homosexual impulses in fruit flies.

Researchers in Chicago have discovered a gene that identifies homosexuality in fruit flies, which can be turned on and off with drugs. David Featherstone, a biologist at the University of Illinois, said that while humans have a similar gene, it has yet to be determined whether that gene has any effect on same-sex attractions in humans.
It's not surprising that the popular press used tabloid terminology to sell the story. But how many of you have seen the highly critical News and Views article by Joel D. Levine in the January 2008 issue of Nature Neuroscience? He calls Grosjean et al. on the carpet for using sensationalistic language, which the editors and reviewers apparently allowed into the final version of the manuscript.
Glia and romance

Drosophila courtship is a complex behavior. A new study shows that glia modulate neurotransmission to influence male preference, but the authors should have resisted the temptation to describe their results in tabloid language.

...In the current issue, Grosjean et al. describe an unexpected role for glial cells in the initiation of male courtship behavior. A mutation that reduces expression of a glial amino-acid transporter causes male flies to court other males with the same probability as females. The authors accordingly named this transporter genderblind. The courtship behavior associated with the genderblind mutation is certainly different from control behavior, but is it really homosexual?
. . .

The study by Grosjean et al. makes an important contribution by calling attention to a neuro-glial element in the circuitry that governs courtship behavior. Furthermore, this study initiates the search for the glutamatergic neurons involved in the processing of courtship pheromones.

Apart from its merits, however, this paper has a serious language problem. Throughout, the authors use the term homosexual to describe the behavior of a male mutant that courts both males and females with equal probability. If anything, these flies might be bisexual, but the data are also consistent with the possibility that genderblind mutants would court anything painted with 7-tricosene...
. . .

...bizarre misapplication of fruit fly research spilling into the public and political arena may well be fostered by scientists' increased use of tabloid language. Yes, the business of science requires communicating effectively, raising money, and indeed a form of advertising, but the language in scientific papers must stick to the facts. My argument is not at all about political correctness. The misuse of a term like homosexual in this and other cases is simply inaccurate, unnecessary, and, in the end, bad for the scientific business.
You have to give the editors some credit, though, for publishing Levine's critique, although it would've been more fun if they let flyingkumquat write the rejoinder instead:
I have had enough of the "OMG You Can Turn Fruit Flies Gay and Then Straight Again" silliness.

Some fishes can change their sex. I don't see people saying, "OMG Fishes Can Change Their Sex, Maybe We Can Too!"

Perhaps a new section of the journal can be called Dish and Bitch...


1 For an excellent summary of courtship in the genderblind mutant, see Bisexual flies and the neurochemistry of behavior. See also Wait for it...Wait for it...It's Teh Gay Gene!


Grosjean Y, Grillet M, Augustin H, Ferveur J-F, Featherstone DE. (2007). A glial amino-acid transporter controls synapse strength and homosexual courtship in Drosophila. Nature Neurosci. 11:54-61.

Levine JD (2008). Glia and romance. Nature Neurosci. 11:8-10.

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At January 06, 2008 7:02 AM, Blogger Roger said...

I work in a lab that does similar research. I read the Grosjean et al article, and Levine's criticisms don't make any sense to me. Levine says that the flies described by Grosjean et al are bisexual, not homosexual, and Levine accuses Grosjean et al of using 'tabloid language'. But in fact Grosjean et al clearly say that their flies are bisexual. They even show it in a figure. So Levine's accusation of 'tabloid language' makes no sense. The Grosjean et al article appears to be very carefully and accurately written. I think Levine was actually responding to distorted media reports, and not the actual Grosjean et al article. I think Levine is perhaps the one guilty of sensationalist language.

At January 07, 2008 12:20 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

On page 54 the authors say the flies are made homosexual, NOT bisexual:

Here, we show that homosexual behavior in Drosophila is controlled by glutamatergic synapse strength, which in turn is regulated by a glial amino-acid transporter that we named genderblind on the basis of the mutant phenotype. Consistent with this conclusion, we found that we could turn homosexual behavior on and off in a period of hours by genetic alteration of genderblind abundance and/or by pharmaceutical manipulation of glutamatergic synapse strength.

And it seems that the word "homosexual" was in the original title of the paper:

* In the version of this article originally published online, the title was incorrect. The correct title is "A glial amino-acid transporter controls synapse strength and courtship in Drosophila." This error has been corrected for all versions of the article.

At January 07, 2008 3:36 PM, Blogger Roger said...

Grosjean et al used 'homosexual' to refer to same sex (male-male) courtship, and 'heterosexual' to refer to different sex (male-female) courtship. What's the problem with that? Aren't 'homo' and 'hetero' from the greek roots meaning 'same' and 'different', respectively? Grosjean et al never said the flies were homosexual. In fact, quite the opposite. From their Results section:

"Although gb[KG07905] mutants showed prominent homosexual behavior, they also showed heterosexual behavior. Therefore, they were presumably bisexual. To confirm this, gb[KG07905] and wild-type male flies were presented simultaneously with a wild-type passive (decapitated) male and a wild-type passive (decapitated) virgin female, either of which could be chosen as a sexual partner. Wild-type males always chose to court the female (Fig. 1c). In contrast, gb mutant males courted wild-type males and females with equal intensity and probability (Fig. 1c). Detailed examination of gb mutant heterosexual courtship and copulation revealed no alterations in copulation frequency, latency or duration (Supplementary Fig. 1 online)."

And they named the mutant 'genderblind', which clearly implies an inability to distinguish sexes and therefore bisexuality, as the paper argues.

Like I said: I don't get what Levine is having a fit about with regard to the language in the paper. If you actually read the paper, Levine's criticism seems off-base. I think he read the distorted media reports and forgot to actually read the paper or something.

At January 07, 2008 6:58 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Yes, I did read [skim] the paper and observed that Grosjean et al. used the words "bisexual" 2 times and "homosexual" 73 times. They also changed the title of their paper, perhaps in response to a critique?

At any rate, the editors of the journal thought it was appropriate to publish Levine's commentary, which was notable, in my view.

At January 07, 2008 7:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's the difference between homosexual behaviour and homosexuality? The privelege of paradigm, among fruit flies? (Fruit, another label).


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