Italian research group subject of data fabrication probe

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Prof. Federico Infascelli is at the center of an ethics inquiry © Associazione SUR

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.

Dr. Elena Cattaneo
Prof. Elena Cattaneo discovered duplicated and edited images in Prof. Infascelli’s published work. Image from Cattaneo Lab

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.

Tudisco-2010-2015-labeled
Composite image of two duplicated figures from Tudisco et al. 2010 & Tudisco et al. 2015. Arrows added by source. (Sources: PubPeer submissions)

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.

Mastellone-2013-labeled
Composite image highlighting unique gel features that are shared between the duplicated images. Note the changed numbering of the lanes. Arrows added by source. (Source: PubPeer submission)

 

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.

207c044
Dr. Enrico Bucci, BioDigitalValley

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

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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.

  • Amelia Jordan

    Wow. This will have rippling repercussions throughout the scientific community. I’m always amazed when people think they will get away with outright fraud.

    • mem_somerville

      I can’t believe that people hate GMOs so much that they’d destroy their reputations and career by faking results. I mean, I get that the rhetorical flourishes of evangelists like Vandana Shiva will be amplifying BS that’s out there. But actually publishing fraudulent data? I can’t even begin to fathom that.

      • Chris Preston

        It has happened more than once already. The motive may be something as simple as an easy way to become famous and idealised, rather than hate per se. There are enough unscrupulous people willing to fake results as we have seen. The real wonder is that they think they won’t be found out: Wakefield, Mikovits, Woo-Suk Hwang, Obokata and so on. It seems to come undone eventually.

      • First Officer

        The ends justify the means mentality tends to set in with strong ideologies.

      • cable1977

        I don’t think it has anything to do with “hating” GMOs, but rather it’s about getting more and more research funding. What I find fascinating is that all the anti-GMO folks are always so quick to call out financial bias in any study that opposes their beliefs, but turn a blind eye to any studies that support their beliefs.

      • Wackes Seppi

        I am not sure that Federico Infascelli
        is really – I mean a Premier Ligue – GMO hater, judging from a
        quick perusal of his publication summaries.

        You may wish to read Ms. Cattaneo’s
        open letter to Marcello Buiatti to see the difference. Buiatti is
        deeply involved in CRIIGEN, you know that famous association… I
        won’t say more : if you criticize them you end up in Court…
        stated and publicized policy.

      • Ewan R

        Sadly though, this isn’t career destroying. It’s career making.

        Sure, he probably won’t be publishing in premier journals, or talking to Italian politicans again – but there’s a lucrative trade to be made on the anti-GMO lecture circuit, particularly for people who have been ‘crushed by the system’ on ‘invented technicalities’

        There also remain a slew of pay to play journals who will willingly accept any old horseshit.

        So while lacking the amazingly thin veneer of credibility that Seralini may have, he is still Seneff or Hubner class, and thus has as much of a career as he likely wants.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      Yup, The first thought I had when I saw this headline was about the recent Volkswagon episode and its’ repercussions.

      • First Officer

        At least the Volkswagon fraud was pretty clever on a technical level. 🙂

        • Needham’s M. Garden

          Does anyone forsee the day when all the evidence will be cut and dried and it will be 100% completely clear that the “organic” industry is behind all this crap?
          Would it be plausible/possible that there could at some point be a consumer revolt to the point that it would take down the “organic” industry?

    • First Officer

      To this day, i don’t know how Seralini escapes being called out. He may not have manipulated the raw data but to continue to purport his conclusions on such shoddy stats analysis is beyond me.

      • Yet the junk science presented in his retracted/re-barfed paper is still held up as a beacon of outstanding science by these ignorant zealots. Mind boggling.

        • cable1977

          No different than the Wakefield research or the Hewistson monkey studies being held up by anti-vax zealots. You combine people who aren’t interested in critically evaluating their beliefs with a lack of understanding of science and it’s not too hard to find them regurgitating the same stuff over and over again.

    • Frederick

      It’s like this ridiculous pig study published in Australia. The woman who published it was seemingly a reasonable scientists, but the study is so bad, any scientist should be ashamed of having their name on that kind of thing ( Myles Power got a video on this). And of course you have Séralinim so yeah maybe it’s to bbecome a instant star in the crank of sphere, after Andrew Wakefield got job and money after his fraud. Séralini got a cult following him, money stream from anti gmo or the organic lobby.

  • First Officer

    This reminds me of the scene in the movie, “China Syndrome”, where Jack Lemmon’s character discovers the periodic x-ray inspections of a pipe joint were all copied from the first one.

  • Skeptico

    Reading this, and considering other debunked anti-GMO studies, it’s almost as if GMO food is perfectly safe and the only way anti-GMO people can claim GMOs are not safe is by doing bogus science.

  • Licurgo Fava

    This guy went to the italian Senate for an audition of experts about OGM. Unfortunately for him one of the senators was a top-class scientist (Elena Cattaneo) and she decided to take a closer look…
    May be we need more scientist within politicians, isn’t it?

    • mem_somerville

      That is an excellent point. But I’m afraid not many scientists want to be politicians.

      • First Officer

        Must be the irreconcilability of seeking physical truths and politics. 🙂

      • Wackes Seppi

        Ms. Elenea Cattaneo was appointed Senator for life by President Giorfio Napolitano on account of her
        distinguished services to her country in the scientific domain. Carlo Rubbia, 1984 Physics Nobel Price and former director general of CERN is another Napolitano nominee.

        • mem_somerville

          Yeah, we don’t have anything like that mechanism in the US. Here it requires regular campaigning, and obscene amounts of fund raising.

      • Skinnydipper

        Isn’t it odd that there are a lot of politicians who think they are scientists?

      • Ce Gzz

        I dared to be involved into Government (Bolivia), until my boss wanted me to lie in a report. Then I stepped out and I’m seeking a job still.

  • First Officer

    It’s been awhile since i last seen it, but in Genetic Roulette, i thought i saw them take some photos and graphs toward the end and imply the opposite of what they were portraying. They flash them quickly by too.

  • Retraction Watch has published an account of this alleged scientific fraud. http://retractionwatch.com/2016/01/17/gmo-researcher-loses-paper-accused-of-manipulating-data/

  • Bob Topp

    The premise of the research seems flawed. According to this article, “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.” My question is why it would be necessary to look for GMO DNA in animal tissue. After all, if the DNA of GMO foods could be found in the animals, why not expect that of non-GMO foods to be present? Conversely, if the DNA of non-GMO foods is not found in animal tissue, why expect that of GMOs to be present? Is there no rigor applied prior to performing the research?

    • Alison Van Eenennaam

      Yes – that is the conclusion of the only other researcher who has found rDNA in animal tissues (Sharma et al. 2006)who concluded – as you did – “This study confirms that feed-ingested DNA fragments (endogenous and transgenic) do survive to the terminal GI tract and that uptake into gut epithelial tissues does occur. A very low frequency of transmittance to visceral tissue was confirmed in pigs, but not in sheep. It is recognized that the low copy number of transgenes in GM feeds is a challenge to their detection in tissues, but there was no evidence to suggest that recombinant DNA would be processed in the gut in any manner different from endogenous feed-ingested genetic material.” The table shown below is from “The fate of transgenic DNA & newly expressed proteins” by Einspanier (2013) http://dx.doi.org/10.1079/9781780641768.0130 from an EXCELLENT book by G. Flachowsky (2013), an independent German researcher, entitled “Animal nutrition with transgenic plants.” http://www.cabi.org/cabebooks/ebook/20133419205

  • mem_somerville

    Hey folks, don’t miss the update in the teeny print at the bottom. Links to the image analysis that’s been released. In summary, it looks like 1 grad student thesis in 2006 was the source of most of the original images. There was recycling of them with re-named tissue lanes, same exact stuff was called 3 different species, and other shenanigans.

    • Chris Preston

      Where I have I seen this before?

      It reminds me of a paper retracted from Science on XRMV.

      This is such obvious fraud that I don’t know why the retractions was just for self-plagiarism.

  • Joe Comida

    Can someone translate into layman’s terms what GMO (or non-GMO) DNA found in animal tissue even means? We are what we eat, yeah? So I would expect some minute amount of food dna in my dna, does that imply harm? if so, what?

    And also wonky, but what would the mechanism for making goats milk less nutritious even be? I.e how would GMO or non-GMO feed even make a difference?

    Seems a long way around to make a bogus point. At least Seralini’s fearmongering was clear and easy to communicate. See these rats? They got cancer by eating that. Total lie, but much more effective communication.

    • mem_somerville

      The idea with this claim is that somehow bits of nucleotide sequence could survive digestion, then somehow get into cells, and then somehow monkey-wrench either gene expression, or protein-making, or something.

      It’s not completely far-fetched. This is because you can affect gene expression this way–if you have very precise matches, and if you have sufficient levels to impact things. This can be done artificially by putting a construct within cells so the cells themselves make it. It might be possible to dump enough on a system, add detergents, and get enough in. In some organisms that don’t have all the levels of digestion or barriers that we have, it can impact them (insects, for example).

      But eating alone doesn’t seem to provide this for humans. A paper came out a couple of years back claiming this, but nobody could reproduce it.

      The reason they need to fear-monger with this is because they lost on all the other claims they’ve tried. Allergies! Tumors! They can’t figure out how to make the nucleotides alone scary. This was how they tried.

      • Licurgo Fava

        Finding DNA in goat milk could lead to very interesting applications. For example you could barcode how animals was fed with a simple PCR. I think it’s an interesting point for food industry and for consumers.

      • Joe Comida

        Gotcha. TY. So perhaps analogous to Bt in a way… the protein affects insects but not humans because we have enzymes that digest / deal with it whereas the insects don’t. Could you direct me to a database of peer-reviewed studies that debunk the allergies/tumors/nucleotides type claims? Whatever are the most vetted scientifically speaking? I.e. prestigious, independent, etc.

        • Have you turned into a plant or a cow lately? No, of course not. But any food derived from a living organism contains DNA in one form or another – especially if you’re eating raw fruits and veggies, or undercooked meat, where the DNA has not been degraded. It is not going to magically be incorporated into your actively replicating chromatin and suddenly start expressing foreign proteins.

          In a recent survey, 80% of the respondents thought that food containing DNA should be labeled. So, that’s a head-scratcher.

        • mem_somerville

          The folks here at Biofortified have a database called GENERA: http://genera.biofortified.org/ It has a huge collection of research. But it’s hard to point to any one and say that’s the one that shows no allergies. You have to consider the entire sphere of the research, where there’s no evidence of problems. It’s also really hard to publish negative data, which complicates these arenas.

          Lately a lot of people turn to this review: https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/with-2000-global-studies-confirming-safety-gm-foods-among-most-analyzed-subject-in-science/

          Look for the link to the PDF in there for access to the paper.

          There’s also the study by Alison’s team: https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/no-sign-health-or-nutrition-problems-gmo-livestock-feed-study-finds

          And I keep asking the people who tell me we have to label to track allergies, and that 60+ countries label, to show me evidence of allergies. There’s not a single case. You know if there was it would be all over their memes….

    • Here’s an infographic that I made to explain the point. I have a more detailed description here: http://frankenfoodfacts.blogspot.com/2015/12/gmo-dna-in-our-blood.html

      • Joe Comida

        very helpful. TY.

  • Thomas Baldwin

    Here’s Dr. Enrico Bucci sides from slide share.
    https://www.slideshare.net/secret/L8m5Whh4lrvmXZ

    Is editing the negative control lane the most blatant and egregious act of fraud in this case? I would think the evidence of this alone would be justification for a retraction and potential firing.

    • Pogo333

      Wow! There is clear manipulation that extends well beyond excessive sloppiness. Someone needs to be brought up on serious ethics violations. I am completely baffled about why someone would do that unless they felt inordinate pressure for producing papers to sustain their position, or were desperate to advance at all costs. Either place is a terrible place to be! Thanks for sharing those slides.