Crosspost from Tree of Life Blog: IBM will save the planet with this magical hydrogel – NOT

Crossposting this from my Tree of Life blog.

Well, press releases can drive me crazy.  And this one is one of the worst I have seen in a while: IBM News room – 2013-01-24 IBM and The Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology Develop New Antimicrobial Hydrogel to Fight Superbugs and Drug-Resistant Biofilms – United States

This new fangled gel they have made they are very proud of.  That is good.  Pride in ones work is a good thing.  But getting the science wrong and making misleading statements is not.  Some statements I have issues with include

  • Able to colonize on almost any tissue or surface, microbial biofilms – which are adhesive groupings of diseased cells present in 80% of all infections – persist at various sites in the human body, especially in association with medical equipment and devices.
    • Huh?  Diseased cells?  What does this even mean?
  • When applied to contaminated surfaces, the hydrogel’s positive charge attracts all negatively charged microbial membranes, like powerful gravitation into a blackhole.
    • Again – huh?  How is this like gravitation in a black hole?
  • However, unlike most antibiotics and hydrogels, which target the internal machinery of bacteria to prevent replication, this hydrogel kills bacteria by membrane disruption, precluding the emergence of any resistance.
    • This is the killer statement.  They have apparently invented a treatment that no organism can resist.  It is therefore perfect.  Sort of like, well, penicillin?  Oh no, wait.  Sort of like chloroquine.  Oh no, wait.  I mean, sort of like streptomycin right?  Sorry – I meant tetracycline.  No no – I meant …. aaaaaaaaaaarrg.

I could go on.  Sounds like a possibly interesting new development.  But when you make absurd claims about it, and get the science all messed up, it does not give me that warm fuzzy feeling.  Annoyingly some news sources are basically just quoting from the PR with no skepticism.  For example, see this Daily Mail article. And this blip in The Star.  At least this in “The Conversation” has some comments on this being possibly overblown.  Anyway, shame on IBM for being more about hype than science.

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Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. My lab is in the UC Davis Genome Center and I hold appointments in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and the Department of Evolution and Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences. My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis (see my lab site here which has more information on lab activities).  In addition to research, I am heavily involved in the Open Access publishing and Open Science movements.