Very interesting comment in Nature this week highlighting the story of XA21-mediated immunity in rice (Rice researchers redress retraction), which was initially published in Science in 2009, retracted in 2013, and finally re-worked and published this week in Science Advances. For those unaware, Pamela Ronald’s lab at UC Davis had reported that recognition of the Xanthomonas oryzae protein Ax21 by the rice receptor XA21 triggered immunity in rice. However, new lab members found that the bacterial mutant ax21 strain was mislabeled and that experiments with synthetic ax21 peptides were highly variable, leading to voluntary retractions of the 2009-Science paper and a second paper in PloS One.
Between the retractions and the latest Sci. Adv. paper, the Ronald lab published a modified study of Ax21, including results that Ax21 is not recognized by XA21. Ronald also penned an interesting article in Scientific American in 2013, describing some of the difficulties after the retraction (The anatomy of a retraction): the debate surrounding when to retract (a hasty or delayed retraction could both be harmful to the scientific community) and the necessary commitment of research to re-visit the questionable results (including checking the results of several subsequent publications that reported related findings). Retraction Watch also has a recent Q&A with Ronald and co-first author Benjamin Schwessinger of the Sci. Adv. paper. It is also interesting to read what practices were changed in the lab to help prevent errors in the future: from the replication of new techniques by different people and blind experiments to electronic lab notebooks.
Errors and mistakes happen; it is nice to see how Pamela Ronald’s lab handled the retraction.
A related aside: Recent editorials in Nature address reproducibility through communication (It’s good to talk and Collaborate and listen to reproduce research). A recent survey by the American Society for Cell Biology found that 70+% of respondents couldn’t replicate a published experimental result. However, 60% of those problems could be resolved by contacting the publishing authors about the methods. Still, almost 80% were never informed that their published result could not be replicated… At least for some experiments, it seems that better communication can help the ‘replication crisis’ in science.