January 25, 2008

Worst Science-Related Reporting Ever

Alright, the title of this entry might be a slight exaggeration. Still, a story from California's Alameda Sun jumped out at me like a jumpy thing made of bricks this morning. I'm going to assume that the reporter, Eric Turowski, lacks a basic knowledge of biology and that he got stuck writing the story because the newspaper didn't have anyone else to do it.

That being said, Turowski surely could have done better than this!

Virus-Producing Fungus Missing from Laboratory

An inventory of viruses on hand at Roche Molecular Systems on the 1100 block of Atlantic Avenue revealed 0.5 milliliters of the fungus Coccidioides immitis missing. C immitis is the fungus producing spores that cause valley fever.

The virus was in a neutral state, suspended in water, and not a threat to health, according to Melinda Baker, director of global communications for Roche...

Valley fever is spread through the air by spores of valley fever fungus. The spores are particularly active during drought seasons, when the soil is disturbed. It is considered an emerging virus as more people move into places previously uninhabited, like Arizona. People with weak immune systems can become seriously ill from the infection. But 60 percent of infected people will develop no symptoms at all. Valley fever can be treated with fungus-killing medicines.
Now, if I weren't a mad mycologist, I probably wouldn't have noticed the story at all and it may seem a bit nitpicky of me to take the author to task. Still, there's no virus involved anywhere in the story whatsoever. There's not even a "virus-producing fungus," as the headline of the story implies. The fungus is only a fungus, and valley fever is caused by that fungus. What was suspended in water was a fungus, not a virus, and that what was in a neutral (or more properly resting) state.

It's not too hard to tell the difference between a virus and a fungus. A virus is an extremely small, nonliving entity consisting of a nucleic acid core (RNA or DNA, depending on the virus) and a protein coat. They can't reproduce themselves without hijacking the genetic machinery of a host organism. A virus is non-cellular.

A fungus is a eukaryote, meaning it has membrane-bound organelles organized inside of cells. Fungi are much, much larger than virions. They have cell membranes made of phospholipid bilayers and produce chitin as a cell wall. They have very large genomes which are composed exclusively of DNA. They reproduce on their own, sometimes sexually and sometimes asexually.

There are plenty of other differences, too, but these are basic ones that the smallest bit of fact-checking would reveal.

Like I said, this is something that most people don't really care about. I hate seeing my favorite organisms reduced to being called non-organisms, though. To see a noble and virulent fungus demeaned as a base and simple virus is just too much.

Virus-producing fungus, indeed! I suggest that this reporter be remanded to the custody of the Mycological Society of San Francisco for immediate re-education. Those folks know exactly what to do with fungus-deniers like Eric Turowski!

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