nobel laureate jack szostak

Jack W. Szostak with his 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. (Photo Credit: Mass General)

Jack Szostak, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University has retracted a paper published in Nature Chemistry in 2016 citing issues with reproducibility, reports Retraction Watch. 

The Nobel laureate was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his groundbreaking work on telomeres. His lab’s focus has since shifted to studying the origins of life on Earth. The retracted paper ‘Oligoargnine peptides slow strand annealing and assist non-enzymatic RNA replication’ attempted to replicate the conditions of early Earth and worked under the hypothesis that RNA had developed before DNA.

The errors in the paper are “definitely embarrassing.”

The difficulty with this hypothesis has been finding an explanation for how RNA would have copied itself. Authors of the paper thought they had identified a peptide that could copy RNA and which could have given rise to early life. According to Szostak they were excited to have “at least a partial solution to this problem,” one which scientists have worked on for over 50 years, but this was not the case.

Attempts by Tivoli Olsen, a member of Szostak’s lab to replicate the findings of the experiment failed. According to the retraction notice, random errors were introduced which led the team to misinterpret data, leading to false positives. Unfortunately, this meant that the peptide did not do what the paper thought it did.

How RNA Formed at the Origins of Life

 “As a scientist the job is to troubleshoot. You can’t help nor can you ignore where that takes you. I fulfilled my obligation to insure that no one after me would waste their time on this,” Olsen told Retraction Watch.

Speaking to Retraction Watch on Tuesday, Szostak spoke of his embarrassment for these errors and added “In retrospect, we were totally blinded by our belief [in our findings]…we were not as careful or rigorous as we should have been (and as Tivoli was) in interpreting these experiments…The only saving grace is that we are the ones who discovered and corrected our own errors, and figured out what was going on”.

Although embarrassed, Szostak and his team have positively demonstrated a critical element of how science should work. Peer review, attempts to replicate and critical self-evaluation are all vital parts of the scientific process, and when a particular finding is determined to be untrue, scientists must revise the literature. 

Although disappointed that the approach does not work, Szostak is returning to the drawing board to look at alternative ways to overcome this roadblock.