A scandal is erupting that threatens to undermine claims of extraordinary risk from genetically engineered crops. An Italian research group run by Professor Federico Infascelli at the University of Naples “Federico II” has just had a peer-reviewed paper forcibly retracted by the journal for plagiarism, however several sources predict that this is just the beginning. Multiple analyses suggest that the group manipulated research results, including potentially fabricated gel images used in papers. The papers from this research group have been used extensively to argue in the political sphere that genetically engineered crops are hazardous, including by Dr. Infascelli himself. Biology Fortified will continue to follow this story and provide updates as it develops.
Professor Infascelli’s research has focused on the detection of DNA from genetically engineered (also known as GM or GMO) foods in the tissues of animals that consume them. His group published several studies claiming this is possible, however, an analysis by Dr. Layla Katiraee on the Biofortified Blog shows that the evidence for this is weak. Independent reproducibility is of key importance in science, (For more information, see Biology Fortified’s new infographic on evaluating feeding studies) and the disagreement between Infascelli’s results and the wider scientific literature defied explanation. Moreover, additional data published by the group claimed that milk from goats fed GMO soy-based feed was nutritionally different with consequences for the health of the nursing kids, or that Bt maize had different fermentation characteristics compared to conventional maize. It wasn’t until Dr. Infascelli testified before the Italian Senate about his research that his research began to unravel.
According to several Italian news articles, Infascelli was invited to speak to the Italian Senate about his research in July 8th, 2015, (video) and also present was Professor Elena Cattaneo from the University of Milan. Dr. Cattaneo, whose main area of research is in Huntington’s disease and stem cells and who is also an Italian Senator for life, found his presentation unconvincing and wanted to ask him some questions about his claims.
She published her questions as an open letter (translated), which also included the comments that he made at the Senate meeting. The letter was ignored by Dr. Infascelli. It wasn’t until she decided to take a closer look at the studies by printing them out that evidence of possible photograph manipulation presented itself.
Images duplicated and altered
Like fingerprints, DNA gels contain unique details that identify each gel. These details can can help identify that data manipulation has occurred.
Upon carefully reading the papers Dr. Cattaneo found that an image had been duplicated from one publication to the next, though the figure legends claimed the images were from different experiments. Due to the grainy texture of the recycled paper she printed the studies on, she noticed that a critical ‘negative control’ lane from the copied image was artificially wiped clean. The control lane in the copy lacks the background noise typical of DNA gels.
Negative controls on a DNA gel are included to ensure that the DNA being detected are not the result of contamination – a common problem in this kind of research. Altering the control could be an attempt to hide contamination. The nearly identical nature of the two images, and the apparent image alterations can be more easily seen in digital form by altering the brightness or colors, and inverting the images.
Other scientists have released some preliminary analyses of the images from four of Infascelli’s studies, including the one above, on PubPeer: 1, 2, 3, & 4. PubPeer is an “online journal club” site that allows scientists and others to comment and review on studies after publication, and the submissions are anonymous. These show several images that appear to be duplicates labeled differently in different papers.
On the left is a composite image of the two duplicated figures from Tudisco et al. (2010) to Tudisco et al. (2015), with arrows highlighting unique gel features found in both figures. In the first image, the figure legend claims that these bands are DNA amplified from samples of colostrum, whereas for the second image, the figure legend claims that lanes 1 & 2 are DNA that came from milk, and lanes 3 & 4 from blood. By inverting the second image, evidence of digitally removing the negative control lane is revealed. (Source Uncredited, PubPeer)
Some images show nearly identical DNA bands in different positions on different gels, suggesting that the images may have been edited to make the gel appear to show something they do not. They also show regions of pixels with no background noise – suggesting that they could have been wiped clean with an image editing program. DNA gels contain unique flaws that can indicate that data manipulation has occurred. Further images show bands added or removed from identical gel images.
One retraction, possibly more
The editorial boards of the scientific journals have been slow to respond and only one – Food and Nutrition Sciences – has taken any public action to date. Even before Dr. Cattaneo sounded the alarm, there were at least two other scientists who alerted this journal to the presence of duplicated and modified images, but these inquiries received no response from the journal.
The publisher of the Food and Nutrition Sciences journal, Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP) is on Beale’s List of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.” Beale’s List is widely considered to be a credible collection of likely “pay for play” journals, where unscrupulous researchers can publish studies that would likely not withstand review at more reputable journals. After Dr. Cattaneo contacted the journal with her evidence, the journal retracted Mastellone et al. 2013 on December 15, 2015, but published a statement of retraction that claimed that the retraction was due to “self-plagiarism” and “honest error” despite potential tampering with figure 1a. Coincidentally, Dr. Infascelli is also a member of the editorial board for the journal.
The image evidence released to date involves four studies in four different journals. The journals where the other three studies were published have not yet released any statements and have provided little information to scientists contacting them about the allegations. We will provide more information as it becomes available.
The search continues
Dr. Cattaneo teamed up with Enrico Bucci at BioDigitalValley, a company that analyzes scientific data and has helped uncover previous cases of research fraud. They are examining all the studies published by Dr. Infascelli’s research group. The full report from BioDigitalValley has not yet been released, but several sources say that the errors go beyond a few images.
Dr. Cattaneo approached the University of Naples directly to report the alleged fraud, and an investigation has already begun at the University level. Taking these allegations seriously, they convened a board of experts from ethics, molecular biology, and veterinary sciences to seek explanations for these findings. The University has not yet released its conclusions, but leaked reports suggest that the problems are very serious and could not be honest errors.
The alleged fraud was initially reported to Professor Luigi Zicarelli, the director of the department. The University is seeking answers as to why he didn’t respond.
The search for additional evidence of image manipulation continues, and will benefit from a wider investigation by members of the scientific community. Below is a list of the relevant research from this group. (Go here for a more complete list of citations from this research group.) Red text indicates papers with data and image issues that have already been identified. If you find any additional discrepancies, please let us know in the comments.
List of Publications
- V. Mastellone, R. Tudisco, G. Monastra, M. E. Pero, S. Calabrò, P. Lombardi, M. Grossi, M. I. Cutrignelli, L. Avallone, F. Infascelli. (2013) Gamma-Glutamyl Transferase Activity in Kids Born from Goats Fed Genetically Modified Soybean. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 4:50-54 – RETRACTED DOI: 10.4236/fns.2013.46A006
- Marrelli, M., Tudisco, R., Mastellone, V., & Conforti, F. (2013). A comparative study of phytochemical composition of genetically and non-genetically modified soybean (Glycine max L.) and evaluation of antitumor activity. Natural Product Research, 27(6), pp. 574-578. DOI: 10.1080/14786419.2012.673607
- Piccolo, G., Centoducati, G., Marono, S., Bovera, F., Tudisco, R., & Nizza, A. (2011). Effects of the partial substitution of fish meal by soy bean meal with or without mannanoligosaccharide and fructooligosaccharide on the growth and feed utilization of sharpsnout seabream, Diplodus puntazzo (Cetti, 1777): preliminary results. Italian Journal of Animal Science, 10(3), pp. 195-199. DOI: 10.4081/ijas.2011.e37
- Tudisco, R., Calabro, S., Bovera, F., Cutrignelli, M. I., Nizza, A., Piccolo, V., & Infascelli, F. (2010). DETECTION OF PLANT SPECIES-SPECIFIC DNA (BARLEY AND SOYBEAN) IN BLOOD, MUSCLE TISSUE, ORGANS AND GASTROINTESTINAL CONTENTS OF RABBIT. World Rabbit Science, 18(2), pp. 83-90. DOI: 10.4995/WRS.2010.18.11
- Tudisco, R., Calabrò, S., Cutrignelli, M. I., Moniello, G., Grossi, M., Mastellone, V., Lombardi, P., Pero, M. E., & Infascelli, F. (2015). Genetically modified soybean in a goat diet: Influence on kid performance. Small Ruminant Research(0), pp. 67-74 DOI: 10.1016/j.smallrumres.2015.01.023
- Tudisco, R., Cutrignelli, M. I., Bovera, F., Calabro, S., Piccolo, G., D’Urso, S., & Infascelli, F. (2007). Influence of the concentrate pellet process on the fate of feed plant DNA in the rabbit. Veterinary Research Communications, 31, pp. 409-412 DOI: 10.1007/s11259-0068-6
- Tudisco, R., Cutrignelli, M. I., Calabro, S., Guglielmelli, A., & Infascelli, F. (2007). Investigation on genetically modified soybean (RoundUp Ready) in goat nutrition: DNA detection in suckling kids. Italian Journal of Animal Science, 6, pp. 380-382. DOI: 10.4081/ijas.2007.1s.380
- Tudisco, R., Lombardi, P., Bovera, F., d’Angelo, D., Cutrignelli, M. I., Mastellone, V., Terzi, V., Avallone, L., & Infascelli, F. (2006). Genetically modified soya bean in rabbit feeding: detection of DNA fragments and evaluation of metabolic effects by enzymatic analysis. Animal Science, 82, pp. 193-199. DOI: 10.1079/ASC200530
- Tudisco, R., Mastellone, V., Cutrignelli, M. I., Lombardi, P., Bovera, F., Mirabella, N., Piccolo, G., Calabro, S., Avallone, L., & Infascelli, F. (2010). Fate of transgenic DNA and evaluation of metabolic effects in goats fed genetically modified soybean and in their offsprings. Animal, 4(10), pp. 1662-1671 DOI: 10.1017/S1751731110000728
Anastasia Bodnar contributed to this report.
Update 1-18-2016: Retraction Watch and Nature News have both published articles about the controversy, and Enrico Bucci’s image analysis has also been released.