The flu is getting worse, just as the government shuts down.

Uh oh, this is not good.

The flu season is looking particularly bad this year. We already had signs of trouble back in November and December, when it emerged that the flu vaccine was not very effective against the dominant strain that is circulating this year, which is called H3N2.

Until this past Friday, it seemed that the peak of the flu season might have occurred just around the new year, as shown in this chart from the CDC:
The chart shows a peak in the very last week of 2017, and then the number of reported cases seemed to decline. But then on Friday the CDC reported this alarming trend:
That red line spiking upward in the middle of the chart shows the number of flu-like cases reported by the CDC's national network this year. Rather than going down, the trend shows a sharp rise over the past two weeks. We don't know exactly what it is (these are not laboratory-confirmed flu cases), but more people are getting sick.

Even more alarming are the reports of young, healthy people dying of the flu. This past week the Washington Post reported on a healthy 10-year-old boy who caught the flu and died within just a few days. Just before Christmas, a healthy 21-year old young man in Pennsylvania came down with the flu, and went rapidly downhill until he was rushed to the emergency room on Dec. 27. The hospital was unable to save him, and he died the next day. These cases are truly alarming, and even though the CDC hasn't seen a statistically significant increase in deaths among young people (not yet, at least), everyone needs to take the flu very seriously this year.

With the government shut down, a difficult situation becomes worse. Most of the CDC staff will be forced to sit on their hands when they could be working–and many of them want to work, but they won't be allowed to. What's especially frustrating (and wasteful) is that the U.S. will almost certainly pay all federal employees for this forced time off, as it did in previous shutdowns.

We also need a better way to make the flu vaccine. The U.S. still relies on vaccines that are produced by growing the virus in chicken eggs, a decades-old method. This sometimes requires us to use a strain that doesn't match the circulating virus, because some strains just won't grow in eggs. So instead we manufacture a mediocre vaccine, rather than investing in new, modern technology that wouldn't need eggs and could produce more effective vaccines at lower cost. (Why are we stuck with old technology? It's a long story, but essentially it boils down to the fact that we rely completely on private companies to make the flu vaccine. The government doesn't make vaccines and has no plans to do so.)

With the right technology, we should be able to produce a universal flu vaccine, one that we can take once and never need again, like most other vaccines. Scientists are getting closer to that, with much help from the (currently shut down) NIH.

Meanwhile, we are looking at a particularly dangerous flu season, with few weapons to guard against it other than the not-very-good vaccine. (Aside: ineffective doesn't mean useless. Even if the vaccine is only 30% effective, as some estimates have it for this year, it's still a good idea. Everyone in my family got it.)

Oh, and one more thing: the flu shot cannot give you the flu. I only mention this because anti-vaxxers continue to promote this particular myth. 80% of people who have come down with the flu this year did not get vaccinated.

The #1 bogus argument that quacks and the government use to promote pseudoscience

This does not reduce pain.
Chairman Mao would be delighted, if he were alive to see it. He now has the U.S. government buying into arguments that he used to hoodwink his own people, decades ago. Never mind that the arguments are all bogus.

This morning, the front page of The Baltimore Sun describes how the U.S. Veterans Administration is using acupuncture to treat chronic pain in veterans. The VA especially likes something called "ear acupuncture," the creation (out of thin air) of a VA doctor who claims that a few needles inserted in your ear will cure pain anywhere in your body. The VA also calls this "battlefield acupuncture," and it is not only fake but also dangerous, so much so that in 2011 I labelled it the worst quackery of the year.

And yet it hasn't gone away, as the Baltimore Sun reports. The VA uses acupuncture "across the country," offering it to veterans who have little choice about their health care provider. A few years ago, the VA argued this could help veterans manage chronic pain from war injuries. Now they're claiming that acupuncture will help solve the opioid epidemic. Whether it works or not seems beside the point: a VA doctor quoted in the story argues that "if patients believe that it’s helping their pain, then it is." Unfortunately for her patients, she seems unaware that science has shown that acupuncture does not work–for anything (as Yale neurologist Steven Novella succinctly put it).

Why is the VA offering quack treatments to veterans? One reason is that these treatments are popular. The same argument appears in countless forms, but it boils down to: "the people want this, so we should give it to them."

I get it: popularity is good news if you're an actor, or a writer, or a singer, or an athlete, or especially a politician. But it means nothing when we're trying to decide if a medical practice is effective. Doctors in medieval Europe used to bleed their patients, often killing them, in the belief that sickness was caused by "ill humors" in the blood. Bleeding was popular, but it was a very bad idea.

It's not just the VA. This past fall, two Colorado Congressmen, Jared Polis (D) and Mike Coffman, (R) announced the creation of a bipartisan Integrative Health and Wellness Caucus, explaining that:
"While at least a third of Americans use complementary or alternative medicines, access is often inconsistent."
It's not surprising that Polis and Coffman believe that we should give people whatever treatments they ask for. Neither of them is a scientist, so they live in a world (politics) where popularity counts for a lot. How ironic that, in the hyper-partisan U.S. political scene today, the parties have come together to support something that is flat-out wrong.

Just stop it already. Stop arguing that just because something is popular, it must be true, or at least worth investigating (at taxpayer expense). For centuries, most humans believed the Earth was flat, but that didn't turn out to be true, though it was popular. We figured it out and moved on.

Today's versions of medieval bleeding include acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, reiki, Ayurveda, healing touch, various "detox" treatments, and more. Science has figured out that all of these are nonsense, and moved on. (And by calling them "nonsense," I am being generous. Some of them are dangerous.) But people who make money off these practices have been waging a decades-long campaign to keep them going.

Acupuncture is a scam foisted on the Chinese people by Mao Tse-Tung, whose country was too poor to provide real medicine to its population. Instead, Chairman Mao launched a marketing campaign to convince them that the old, traditional medicine was just as good. Kimball Atwood wrote a 4-part history of these events; in part 3 he reveals this gem, from Mao's personal physician:
"Publicly, the Chairman was the leading advocate of traditional medicine, but he refused to use it himself."
And now the U.S. government has fallen for the same scam.

Universities are prey to this as well. This fall, we saw the University of California at Irvine announce a $200 million gift to create a new medical center dedicated to integrative medicine, a disturbing intrusion of junk science into the academic mission of the university. One of the donors, Susan Samueli, argued that "The public is not only interested [in integrative medicine], but they are clamoring for it.”

There it is again–the argument from popularity. And even though this might be privately funded, it is based at a public, state-funded university.

One might hope that the NIH would help set things straight. Think again. Here's an example from NIH's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH:
"Many Americans—more than 30 percent of adults and about 12 percent of children—use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine."
NCCIH's website is careful not to state explicitly that popularity is equivalent to evidence. But then what are they saying? That NIH thinks that 30% of Americans are wrong? (By the way, that 30% number is highly dubious. It includes a wide array of practices, some reasonable and others wacky.)

Why do we even have an NIH center devoted to integrative medicine? It's not because there's any science behind it. On the contrary, NCCIH is a monument to a deep misunderstanding on the part of former Senator Tom Harkin, who created it back in 1991. For an excellent summary of NCCIH's history, see this short video from Reason TV:

or my own talk from a 2015 conference, here. Harkin earmarked a few million dollars to create a small Office of Alternative Medicine in 1991, and with his help it grew over the years into a large, money-wasting administrative behemoth.

NCCIH's website is replete with misleading statements. After pointing out that "millions of Americans use complementary health approaches" (there's that popularity argument again), they offer this sage advice:
"Choose a complementary health practitioner, such as an acupuncturist, as carefully as you would choose a conventional health care provider."
Face, meet palm. No one shouldn't be choosing a "complementary" health provider in the first place, and NIH shouldn't be telling people to do it carefully, whatever the heck that means.

Yes, this stuff is popular. And its popularity has enriched the numerous practitioners of bad medicine, many (most?) of whom may genuinely believe that their snake oil works. But popularity doesn't make something true. Or maybe it does–I hear that the tooth fairy is very popular.

NIH opens the floodgates to creating super-viruses

Some scientists really want to earn their "mad scientist" label. Ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, novelists and screenwriters have shown us the dangers of letting mad scientists pursue their dreams without any controls. Of course, those stories are fiction.

In the microbial world, though, technology has caught up with fiction. Scientists today can create viruses from scratch, as they've already done with the polio virus, back in 2002. Using the tools of modern genomics, virologists and microbiologists can make pathogens much, much more deadly. But would anyone really want to do this? The answer, it turns out, is yes.

A few years ago, some virologists had the clever idea of modifying the bird flu virus to make it more deadly to humans. What would it take, they wondered, to turn the bird flu into a human flu? They decided to give it a try, and they announced their plans to the world. Then, just a few months later, they published results showing that they had succeeded, at least partially, using a bird flu called H7N9.

That wasn't even their first try. Only a year earlier, they did the same thing using a different flu virus (H5N1). Both of these bird flu strains have killed people, but the wild-type version of the virus rarely infects humans. The scientists running these experiments aimed to create a strain that could get into humans much more easily.

Many scientists were mortified. 18 leading microbiologists and infectious disease experts, including Nobel laureate Sir Richard Roberts, formed the Cambridge Working Group to oppose efforts to create super-viruses in the lab. Hundreds of other scientists, including 3 more Nobel laureates, joined the group as charter members.

In response to the concerns raised by scientists and other public health experts, NIH announced a moratorium on these so-called "gain of function" (GOF) experiments, at least in the U.S. (The scientists leading the charge for GOF experiments were based primarily in The Netherlands, although they did get some funding from NIH.) The NIH convened an expert panel, the NSABB, who commissioned a 1,000-page report and then issued their own report, which was released in May of 2016.

The NSABB panel avoids taking very strong positions, but they do raise some alarms. Here's their definition of "research of concern," for example:
"...research that could generate a pathogen that is: 1) highly transmissible and likely capable of wide and uncontrollable spread in human populations; and 2) highly virulent and likely to cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans." 
This does not sound like a good idea! So what does the NSABB recommend? Well, this:
"Research proposals involving GOF research of concern ... should receive an additional, multidisciplinary review, prior to determining whether they are acceptable for funding."
I can't argue that research like this doesn't need "additional" review–but the wording here suggests that at least some experiments like this might be worth funding. Mad scientists must be rubbing their hands together in glee.

And finally, just last week NIH announced it will end the moratorium on gain-of-function research. (They made this announcement just a week before Christmas, when many people are probably not paying attention. Coincidence? Perhaps.) In his statement announcing the end of the moratorium, NIH Director Francis Collins wrote:
"I am confident that the thoughtful review process ... will help to facilitate the safe, secure, and responsible conduct of this type of research in a manner that maximizes the benefits to public health."
I am not so confident. Harvard's Marc Lipsitch, one of the leaders of the Cambridge Working Group, commented that "we don't need to do these dangerous experiments. Indeed there are many ways that can (and have) been used to answer the public health question with greater generality, little to no safety risk, and much lower cost."

But just in case there is some question, let's weigh the pluses and minuses, shall we?
Pluses:
  • Creating novel pathogens might lead to insights in the basic biology of viruses and bacteria.
  • Creating hard-to-kill pathogens might help us develop better anti-virals and anti-bacterials, although more effective strategies already exist.
Minuses:
  • The viruses could accidentally escape, and millions of people could die.
  • The viruses could get into the wrong hands, and millions of people could die.
I don't know about you, Dr. Collins, but I'm leaning towards banning such research permanently.

No, Google didn't just create AI that could "build your genome"

Most scientists don't have their own PR machine to hype their work. After reading the announcement last week from Google's genomics group, I realized that's probably a good thing.

Wired article last Friday reported that "Google is giving away AI that can build your genome sequence." Sounds impressive–two high-tech innovations (AI and genomes) in the same title! Unfortunately, the truth is somewhat different. It turns out that Google's new "AI" software is little more than an incremental improvement over existing software, and it might be even less than that.

I'm going to have to get into the (technical) weeds a bit to explain this, but it's the only way to set the record straight. The Wired piece opens with this intriguing challenge:
"Today, a teaspoon of spit and a hundred bucks is all you need to get a snapshot of your DNA. But getting the full picture—all 3 billion base pairs of your genome—requires a much more laborious process."
Interesting, I thought. The writer (Megan Molteni) seems to be talking about genome assembly–the process of taking billions of tiny pieces of DNA sequence and putting them together to reconstruct whole chromosomes. This is something I've been working on for nearly 20 years, and it's a fascinating but very complex problem. (See our recent paper on the wheat genome, as one of dozens of examples I could cite.)

So does Google have a new genome assembly program, and is it based on some gee-whiz AI algorithm?

No. Not even close. Let's look at some of the ways that the Google announcement and the Wired article are misleading, over-hyped, or both.

1. The Google program doesn't assemble genomes. That's right: even though the Wired piece opens with the promise of "getting the full picture" of your genome, the new Google program, DeepVariant, doesn't do anything of the sort. DeepVariant is a program for identifying small mutations, mostly changes of a single letter (called SNPs). (It can find slightly larger changes too.) This is known as variant calling, or SNP calling, and it's been around for more than a decade. Lots of programs can do this, and most of them do it very well, with accuracy exceeding 99.9%.

How could Wired get this so wrong? Well, the Wired piece is based on a Google news release from a few days earlier, called "DeepVariant: Highly Accurate Genomes With Deep Neural Networks," written by the authors of the software itself. Those authors, who obviously know what their own software does, make the misleading statement that DeepVariant is
"a deep learning technology to reconstruct the true genome sequence from HTS sequencer data with significantly greater accuracy than previous classical methods."
If you read on, though, you quickly learn that DeepVariant is just a variant caller (as the name implies). This software does not "reconstruct the true genome sequence." That's just wrong. To reconstruct the sequence, you would need to use a program called a genome assembler, a far more complex algorithm. (I should add that many genome assemblers have been developed, and it's an active and thriving area of research. But I digress.)

The Wired article also points out that
"the data produced by today’s [sequencing] machines still only produce incomplete, patchy, and glitch-riddled genomes."
Yes, that's true. Again, though, DeepVariant does nothing to fix this problem. It can't assemble a genome, and it can't improve the assembly of an "incomplete, patchy" genome.

2. Wild hyperbole: the caption on the lead image in the Wired piece says "Deep Variant is more accurate than all the existing methods out there."  The Google press release, presumably the source for that caption, claims that DeepVariant has "significantly greater accuracy than previous classical methods."

No, it does not. This is the kind of claim you'd never get away with in a scientific paper, not unless you rigorously demonstrated your method was truly better than everything else. The Google team hasn't done that.

How good is it? First, let me remind you that variant calling programs have been around a long time, and they work very well. An incremental improvements would be nice, but not "transformative" or a "breakthrough"–words that the Google team didn't hesitate to use in their press release. They also used the word "significant," which they'd never get away with in a scientific paper, not without statistics to back it up. Press releases can throw around dramatic claims like these without anyone to check them. That's not a good thing.

About a year ago, the Google team released a preprint on bioRxiv that shows that their method is more accurate (on a limited data set) than an earlier method called GATK, which was developed by the same author, Mark DePristo, in his former job at MIT, which he left to join Google. GATK is quite good, and is very widely used, but other, newer methods are much faster and (at least sometimes) more accurate. The Google team basically ignored all of the other variant calling programs, so we just don't know if DeepVariant is better or worse than all of them. If they want to get this preprint published in a peer-reviewed journal, they're going to have to make a much better case.

(As an aside: a much-less hyped method called 16GT, published earlier this year by a former member of my lab, Ruibang Luo, is far faster than DeepVariant, just as accurate, and runs on commodity hardware, unlike DeepVariant which requires special resources only available in the Google Cloud. And it does all this with math and statistics–no AI required. But I digress.)

(Another aside: if we really wanted to get into the weeds, I would explain here that the "AI" solution in DeepVariant is transformation of the variant calling problem into an image recognition problem. The program then uses a method called deep neural networks to solve it. I have serious reservations about this approach, but suffice it to say that there's no particular reason why treating the problem as an image recognition task would provide a large boost over existing methods.)

3. More wild hyperbole. The Google news release opens with a sentence containing this:
"in the field of genomics, major breakthroughs have often resulted from new technologies."
It then goes on to describe several true breakthroughs in DNA sequencing technology, such as Sanger sequencing and microarrays, none of which had any contribution from the Google team. Then–pause for a deep breath and a paragraph break–we learn that "today, we announce the open source release of DeepVariant." Ta-da!

I can only shake my head in wonder. Does the Google team truly believe that DeepVariant is a breakthrough on a par with Sanger sequencing, which won Fred Sanger the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry? This is breathtakingly arrogant.

4. DeepVariant is computationally inefficient. Even if it is better than earlier programs (and I'm not convinced of that), DeepVariant is far slower. While other programs run on commodity hardware, it appears that Google's DeepVariant requires a large, dedicated grid of computers working in parallel. The Wired article explains that two companies (DNAnexus and DNAStack) had to invest in new GPU-based computer hardware in order to run DeepVariant. An independent evaluation found that DeepVariant was 10 to 15 times slower than the competition. Coincidentally, perhaps, Google's press release also announces the availability of the Google Cloud Platform for those who want to run DeepVariant.

No thanks. My lab will continue to use 16GT, or Samtools, or other variant callers that do the job much faster, and just as well, without the need for the Google Cloud. As a colleague remarked on Twitter, the "magic pixie dust of 'deep learning' and 'google'" doesn't necessarily make something better.

Genomics is indeed making great progress, and although I applaud Google for dedicating some of its own scientific efforts to genomics, it's not helpful to exaggerate what they've done so far, especially when they take it to this level. Both the Google news release and the Wired article contain the sort of over-statements that make the public distrust science reporting. We don't need to do that to get people excited about science.

Soon your Internet will look just like cable

The new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, formerly worked as a lawyer for Verizon. His plan to eliminate net neutrality is a bigger gift to Verizon than anything he's ever done before.

In just a few weeks, the FCC will vote to eliminate net neutrality. The vote isn't in doubt: with Pai in charge, the anti-neutrality votes have a 3-2 edge. Without net neutrality, Internet service providers will be able to charge web companies for "fast lanes," which they can't do now. Smaller companies and individual's websites may be slowed down so much as to render them unusable. The biggest service providers (Netflix, Google, Amazon, and others) will have to cough up extra money, but the consumers won't see any of that–all the benefits will go to the ISPs. Consumers will see their rates go up.

Higher fees for lousier service. Does this sound familiar? That's how cable companies have operated for years.

Not surprisingly, virtually everyone hates this idea except the cable companies themselves. The telecommunications industry, though, is very excited about the prospect of all the money they're going to make. When previous FCC commissioner Tom Wheeler proposed to weaken net neutrality just a couple of years ago, the ensuing public outcry convinced him to reverse himself, resulting in a strong ruling in 2015 preserving neutrality. This week, Wheeler blasted Pai's new rules, saying that "this proposal raises hypocrisy to new heights."

But don't take my word for it. Check out this terrific and entertaining explainer from John Oliver, earlier this year:


If Ajit Pai and his telecom buddies get their way, here's what your Internet service might look like next year–I altered the first line, just to convey the idea; the rest is from a list of Comcast's current cable TV services:
That's right: your Internet service provider (ISP) will be allowed to bundle websites just like they bundle television channels. Of course, ISPs claim they will do no such thing, but why should we trust them?

If net neutrality goes away, no longer will anyone be able to set up a website and turn it into a thriving business by offering popular content. They'll first need to raise money to pay the ISPs, or else face being throttled back before their business even has a chance..

No one wants this change except a few large telecom companies. Interviewed by The Nationformer FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said
"There can be no truly open internet without net neutrality. To believe otherwise is to be captive to special interest power brokers or to an old and discredited ideology that thinks monopoly and not government oversight best serves the nation."
Ajit Pai, our new FCC chairman, clearly belongs to the former. Verizon is now in charge of the FCC.


Transgenic stem cells lead to a miraculous cure

Sometimes I read a science paper and I just say "Holy cow, this is amazing." I don't have that reaction very often, but I did last week.

Amidst all the hype, the hope, and the controversy about gene therapy and stem cell research, some very real progress is being made. Scientists can create working versions of human genes, package them into a virus, and then use the virus to deliver the genes to a real person. This approach creates "transgenic" cells that have bits of virus DNA within them, but the virus can be engineered to be harmless.

Last week, scientists reported in the journal Nature how they saved the life of a 7-year-old boy using transgenic stem cells. Twenty years ago, this would have been science fiction. Even today it is nothing short of astonishing.

Here's the story, summarized from the paper by Tobias Hirsch, Michele de Luca, and their colleagues. In June 2015, a 7-year-old boy was admitted to the Burn Unit of Children’s Hospital of Ruhr University, in Bochum, Germany, where Hirsch and his colleagues (Tobias Rothoeft, Norbert Teig, and others) work. The child wasn't suffering from burns: he had a devastating genetic disease, junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB), that had caused him to lose 80% of his skin.

Figure 1b from Hirsch et al. Schematic
representation of the clinical picture.
The denuded skin is indicated in red;
blistering areas are indicated in green.
Flesh-colored areas indicate currently
non- blistering skin. Transgenic grafts
were applied on both red and green areas.
Children with JEB suffer from constant blistering, wounds, and scarring. The disease is uncurable and children often die before reaching their teens. The 7-year-old boy was near death when he was admitted to the hospital–his weight had dropped to 17 kilograms (38 pounds) and he had severe skin infections from streptococcus and pseudomonas bacteria.

Dr. Hirsch and his team were struggling to keep the boy alive, and they had no treatments to offer. In desperation, they searched the scientific literature and found a possible treatment using gene therapy, developed by Michele De Luca, of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. Dr. De Luca had only tried this treatment twice before, and even then only on tiny patches of skin. He had never tried it on such a severe case.

The boy and his parents had no other options to save his life. They agreed to let Dr. De Luca try.

In September of 2015, De Luca took a small patch of undamaged skin (4 square centimeters) back to his lab in Italy. There, he used a retrovirus containing a functioning copy of the LAMB3 gene–the gene that was mutated in the boy–to infect the skin cells. The retrovirus integrated itself into the genome of many of the skin cells, giving them the ability to function normally. Then De Luca grew the repaired cells into new skin grafts, enough to cover 80% of the child's body.

In a series of surgeries starting in October 2015, Hirsch and his colleagues applied the skin grafts to the young boy. The results were amazing.

As reported in the paper itself:
"Virtually complete epidermal regeneration was observed after 1 month.... Over the following weeks, the regenerated epidermis surrounding the open lesions and the epidermal islands spread and covered most of the denuded areas."
In other words, it worked. The new skin completely replaced the missing or damaged skin on 80% of the boy's body. What's even more remarkable is that two years later, his skin remains normal. The new skin is functioning perfectly and the young boy has returned to school.

The science behind this treatment represents the culmination of decades of research into gene therapy, stem cells, retroviruses, and genomics. To make it all work, we had to know: the identity of the gene that caused the disease (LAMB3); the DNA sequence of a normal LAMB3 gene; how to insert the human gene into a retrovirus; how to create a modified retrovirus that wouldn't harm humans; and much more.

The success of the therapy also revealed new insights into stem cells in human skin: the small patch of undamaged skin from the boy contained many cells, a few of which were stem cells (holoclones) that could replenish the skin indefinitely. It was these stem cells that allowed the skin grafts to take hold and continue to function, hopefully for the rest of the boy's life.

Sometimes science and medicine converge, and miracles happen.

(Note: the paper is "Regeneration of the entire human epidermis using transgenic stem cells" by T. Hirsch et al.)

The new Star Trek series gets biology terribly, terribly wrong.

The new Star Trek: Discovery series is based on a massive scientific error. Can it survive?

It didn't have to be this way. Those of us who have followed Star Trek through its many TV series and movies, including the excellent trio of recent moves (2016's Star Trek Beyond is the latest) were eager to jump on board the newest show, Star Trek: Discovery.

Despite some rather uneven acting in the pilot, I was willing to give it a chance. So were millions of other Star Trek fans.

But alas, the writers have stumbled into a scientific error so egregious, and so entangled in the entire plot line, that I fear the new Star Trek cannot recover. (Note: a few mild spoilers ahead.)

Episodes 4 and 5, released on October 8 and 15, revealed that the USS Discovery, the ship that the series revolves around, has an advanced form of transport that allows it to travel anywhere in the universe instantaneously. Unlike all previous Star Trek transport tech, this one uses a biological mechanism, based on mushrooms.

Yes, you read that right. The DASH (Displacement Activated Spore Hub) drive uses mushroom spores as its power source. They've discovered a special fungus whose root system extends "throughout subspace" all over the galaxy. Using spores from this fungus, the ship can jump into subspace (or something like that) and jump out somewhere else in real space, light years away, in a matter of seconds. As bizarre and this sounds, the worst is yet to come.

To power its DASH drive, the Discovery maintains a large greenhouse full of spore-producing mushrooms. (Mycologists might love this, but how big a fan base can they be?) The problem for the Discovery, in the first few episodes, is that the experimental drive will only let them jump short distances.

Then they discover the tardigrade. Tardigrades are a real thing: they are microscopic animals, only 0.5 millimeters long, that live all over the planet. Here's a picture of one:
Electron microscope image of Milnesium tardigradum,
from E. Schokraie et al., PLoS ONE 7(9): e45682.

They are also surprisingly cute for a microscopic animal, and they are colloquially known as water bears, moss piglets, or space bears. "Space bears" comes from their ability to survive in extreme environments, possibly including interplanetary space.

Star Trek Discovery's tardigrade is, shall we say, rather different. It looks a bit like the picture shown here, but it's the size of a large grizzly bear, incredibly strong, and extremely fierce. On the show they call it a "giant space tardigrade."

But that's not all. Thanks to a unique biological property that the show's writers apparently misunderstood, the space tardigrade can access the mushroom network to travel throughout the universe, wherever and whenever it chooses.

Here's how the space tardigrade accomplishes this remarkable feat of interstellar travel, as explained by Michael Burnham, the show's central character (in Episode 5, "Choose your pain"):
"Like its microscopic cousins on Earth, the tardigrade is able to incorporate foreign DNA into its own genome via horizontal gene transfer. When Ripper [the space tardigrade] borrows DNA from the mycelium [the mushroom], he's granted an all-access travel pass."
And just like that, not only the tardigrade but the entire spaceship jump across the galaxy. Is this sounding a bit crazy? It should.

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a real thing. It's a process through which bacteria sometimes take up DNA from the environment and integrate it into their own genomes. Animals can't do HGT, but rather infamously, a paper was published in December 2015 that made the bold claim that tardigrades had a unique ability to absorb all kinds of DNA. That paper was instantly controversial in the scientific community, and not surprisingly its findings were being disputed in the Twittersphere within days of its appearance. Surprisingly, the same journal (PNAS) that published the bogus HGT claim published a second paper just a few months later showing that tardigrades do not absorb foreign DNA into their genome. That plus a third paper showed that the original paper had mistakenly identified contaminating DNA as part of the tardigrade's own genome. This rapid correction of the record was a win for science; I've used this example to demonstrate to my undergraduate class how sloppy science (the first paper) can lead one astray.

So: a minor scientific controversy, quickly debunked.

Until, that is, one of the Star Trek writers got their hands on it. Apparently one of them heard the tardigrade story, perhaps someone who'd had a bit of biology in college (I'm guessing here), and got so excited that they turned it into a wildly implausible premise for an intergalactic space drive.

The idea of using horizontally transferred DNA for space travel is so nutty, so bad, that it's not even wrong. Even if tardigrades could absorb foreign DNA (they can't), how the heck is this supposed to give them the ability to tap into the (wildly implausible) intergalactic spore network? DNA that's been taken up through HGT isn't connected to the source any longer. This is no more plausible than asserting that people could connect to the mushroom network by eating a plate of mushrooms. And how would the space-traveling tardigrade take the entire ship with it? Are we supposed to assume it's creating some kind of mushroom-DNA field?

Star Trek has had faster-than-light warp drives for 50 years. Although physically implausible, warp drive isn't laughably ridiculous. The DASH drive is.

And now the entire series seems to be based on a combination of magic (an intergalactic mushroom network in subspace) and scientific errors (horizontal gene transfer by tardigrades).

I can't watch this nonsense. I'm willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story (warp drive!), but I can't accept obviously bogus claims. I don't know how the Star Trek writers can get themselves out of this one, but if they don't, then Star Trek Discovery is finished. If they're reading this, here's my plea: ditch the DASH drive and find something to replace it–and for god's sake, hire a competent science consultant.