The bacteria in our gut are really in their glory days. Bacteria found in our feces have gone from being dumped on to being at the forefront of new cures for diseases such as Clostridium difficile infection through a process known as fecal transplantation.
We now know that there is a balance between the different types of bacteria in your gut, and, that they can cause a load of problems by causing disease when they are out of balance.
Now, don’t poo-poo it just because it involves having someone else’s feces transplanted into your colon. Someday, we might go for fecal transplants like we go to the dentist.
Whenever a scientific topic gets hot like this, scientists are under a lot of pressure to get their results published first. This is because a tenet of scientific publications is that once something is published, that same result cannot be published again.
Sometimes this pressure leads to mistakes, but it can also result in fraud: intentionally making up data. This latter situation was recently reported for an article originally published over two years ago in “Diabetes” (1).
The paper entitled “Replication of Obesity and Associated Signaling Pathways Through Transfer of Microbiota From Obese-Prone Rats” tried to build upon the body of work that shows that the bacteria in the gut of obese people are different from the bacteria found in non-obese people. They looked at the chicken-and-egg question regarding this difference. Specifically, are the different gut bacteria making people obese or does being obese change someone's gut bacteria? They did the work by doing fecal transplants from rats that are prone or resistant to obesity to rats with no bacteria at all in their guts.
There are multiple reasons for the retraction of a paper. Although papers can be retracted because of honest errors, this is the case only 21 percent of the time (2). And, although the remainder of the reasons for a retraction lie on a spectrum of ethical questionability, they include some form of scientific misconduct.
This particular case, where an institutional investigation found that the published results were falsified and/or fabricated, is as bad as it gets.
“The lead and corresponding authors wish to retract the above-cited article," the retraction announcement states, "as an institutional investigation has identified that coauthor Yassine Sakar falsified the data used to produce Fig. 4B, fabricated Fig. 5A, and fabricated the data used to produce Fig. S3(C)."
Not only does unethical behavior like this tarnish the credibility of science in general, it also wastes the time, energy and resources of researchers who are attempting to build off of current literature. For example, this particular paper has currently been cited by 34 different papers (google scholars). Hopefully, their work was not based too extensively on this retracted work, or else it will end up in the toilet as well.
(1) Replication of Obesity and Associated Signaling Pathways Through Transfer of Microbiota From Obese-Prone Rats. Diabetes 2014;63:1624-1636. Frank Duca, Yassine Sakar, Patricia Lepage, Fabielle Devime, Benedicte Langelier, Joel Dore and Mihai Covasa.
(2) Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications. PNAS 2012; 109 no. 42. 17028–17033. Ferric C. Fang, R. Grant Steen and Arturo Casadevall.