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DOZENS of women have written to Pope Benedict asking if Roman Catholic priests can be allowed the occasional hand job.

(This has to be satire, but these days one will believe anything about Catholics and the Pope)

It is one of these events which – like the cloning of Dolly – change everything and nothing. As a proof of concept, the creation by Craig Venter et al of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesised genome is definitive. For the first time an organism exists that got its genome not from the direct replication of another organism's, but from a description of another organism's, stored in a computer – and slightly modified, at that, to include a distinguishing "watermark" that might as well be, and perhaps already is, a trademark. It's also a landmark. This is a moment in evolution, the origin of a new kingdom: the Synthetica, as artist Daisy Ginsberg has suggested we call it, supplementing nature's bacteria, eukarya, and archaea.

When a major South American pest infests potato tubers, the plant produces bigger spuds, reports a study by Cornell, University of Goettingen and National University of Colombia researchers.

In the past, I have criticised science journalists for not providing enough background in their reports. Both news stories and scientific papers obviously focus on new events and achievements, but they do so in the knowledge that new discoveries stand on giant shoulders. For this reason, when I cover new papers for this blog, I try to describe some of the research that led up to it, a tactic that fits with the growing cries for more context in modern journalism.

And yet, it’s perhaps churlish to expect this to be a routine part of science journalism when many scientists themselves don’t take up the practice. I bring this up in the light of a new paper, published today in Nature Neuroscience, about the controversial topic of acupuncture. I was going to do this as a straight write-up but actually the omissions in the paper are probably just as interesting than the science within it.


 

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