Chris Woolston in Nature:
A story about epigenetics in the 2 May issue of The New Yorker has been sharply criticized for inaccurately describing how genes are regulated. The article by Siddhartha Mukherjee — a physician, cancer researcher and award-winning author at Columbia University in New York — examines how environmental factors can change the activity of genes without altering the DNA sequence. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, posted two widely discussed blog posts calling the piece “superficial and misleading”, largely because it ignored key aspects of gene regulation. Other researchers quoted in the blog posts called the piece “horribly damaging” and “a truly painful read”. Mukherjee responded by publishing a point-by-point rebuttal online. Speaking to Nature, he says he now realizes that he erred by omitting key areas of the science, but that he didn’t mean to mislead. “I sincerely thought that I had done it justice,” he says.
Mukherjee’s article, ‘Same But Different’, takes a personal view of epigenetics — a term whose definition is highly contentious in the field. The story features his mother and aunt, identical twins who have distinct personalities. Mukherjee, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his best-selling book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner, 2010), writes that identical twins differ because: “Chance events — injuries, infections, infatuations; the haunting trill of that particular nocturne — impinge on one twin and not on the other. Genes are turned on and off in response to these events, as epigenetic marks are gradually layered above genes, etching the genome with its own scars, calluses, and freckles.” The article is drawn from a book by Mukherjee that is due out later this month, called The Gene: An Intimate History (Scribner, 2016).