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Claim: World's Oldest People Are Genetically Superior
Discovery News published on November 12, 2014 titled “World’s Oldest People Are Genetically Superior.” I found that the titular claim of the article was rather big and definitive, but as I continued reading I found that the evidence posited seemed less than conclusive. At no point in this article does Discovery make an effort to qualify what this "superiority" is in definition or in characteristic. At best, it points to a change in protein production between supercetenarians and young people, but there is no elaboration or affirmation that this is the superiority in question. This type of misinformation can be detrimental to the public's scientific education.
I decided to get in contact with the editors of Discovery News. Unfortunately, there is no contact information for Discovery News on their website, so I had to be linked to their close affiliate Discovery Communication. There, I sent an inquiry to their Viewer Relations department about the content of the article. At this point though, I have not received a reply, let alone a confirmation of my inquiry being submitted. This is what I wrote:
“Recently I came across an article your team had published on November 12, 2014 titled ‘World’s Oldest People Are Genetically Superior.’ I found that the claim of the article was rather big and definitive, but as I continued reading I found that the evidence posited seemed less than conclusive. With the comparison of genomes between supercentenarians and people under 110 years old, very little of the differences in the genomes could be qualified by the study Stanford University’s Departments of Developmental Biology and Genetics conducted. If this is so, why insist on supporting such a boldly conclusive and misleading statement throughout an article? It was very unclear what it meant to be ‘genetically superior.’ Re-reading the article, I could not find a statement qualifying what differences have to exist in a person’s genome to support this idea. This was hinted at by discussing the gene TSHZ3 and the production of ‘a rare protein-altering variant,’ but its function is never described. While the researchers bring up TSHZ3 in their PLOS One publication, they also state that ‘[they] found no significant evidence of enrichment for a single rare protein-altering variant or for a gene harboring different rare protein altering variants in supercentenarian compared to control genomes.’ If this is the case, how can we make any claims about the genomes of these supercentenarians? Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.”
As time waned on, I still was not getting any response from any branch of Discovery, so I took to social media and asked for evidence through Twitter by tweeting at the Discovery News Twitter handle (@DNews). Unfortunately, I have not gotten any answers about their claim through this route either.
With no reply from Discovery, I had to go on and find the study that was being used at the heart of this whole claim. Using key words about the researchers involved and the name of the journal, I was able to find the study very easily. On PLOS One’s website, there is access to the study “Whole-Genome Sequencing of the World’s Oldest People,” which in the abstract alone revealed illuminating evidence that the claim made by Discovery News was not accurate.
The researchers stated that “[they] found no significant evidence of enrichment for a single rare protein-altering variant or for a gene harboring different rare protein altering variants in supercentenarian compared to control genomes.” The article’s main focus was on rare protein-altering variants and genes, specifically focusing on one gene called TSHZ3. Even with the differences spotted between the supercentenarians and the control group in this gene, the researchers clearly stated this was not significant (in direct opposition to the Discovery News Claim), let alone grounds to claim genetic superiority.