In scientific research it often happens that significant discoveries or methodological advancements get christened after the person who made them. For example, the process by which we treat milk in order to reduce harmful bacteria is called pasteurization after the French Biologist Louis Pasteur. The fecal bacterium E. Coli (Escherichia Coli) is named after its discoverer: Dr. Theodor Escherich. The sequence of reactions involved in generating most of the energy that cells use is called the Krebs cycle after the British biochemist Hans Krebs. Even pieces of laboratory glassware are named after people! The Erlenmayer flask is named after the German chemist Emil Erlenmeyer, the Dewar flask is named after the Scottish chemist James Dewar. The Büchner flask is named after the German chemist Ernst Büchner.
The field of science that has assigned more person names to entities is chemistry. There are hundreds of reactions in chemistry that are named after the researchers who discovered or studied them. There are reactions such as the Birch reduction (after the Australian chemist Arthur Birch), the Wohl degradation (after the German chemist Alfred Wohl), the Robinson annulation (after the English chemist Robert Robinson), and countless others that meander the nightmares of chemistry students worldwide before exams.
Today I am going to write about a curious chemical reaction that I encountered. I was reading about an enzyme called pyruvate dehydrogenase (PD). This enzyme is part of the PD complex which is responsible for the conversion of the substrate pyruvate (an end product of carbohydrate metabolism) into another substance called Acetyl-coenzyme A, which is one of the first substrates of the Krebs cycle mentioned above. The PD complex is important for many reasons. For example, head trauma can lead to a reduction in the levels of this enzyme which compromises the energy state of the nerves and can lead to neuronal death.
I was trying to search for a fact about PD without having to wade through countless pages of erudite reviews, so I quickly Googled “pyruvate dehydrogenase” and among the hits was a Wikipedia entry. So, even though I am mindful of the perils of using Wikipedia, I (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…) clicked on the Wikipedia page of pyruvate dehydrogenase. To begin the conversion of pyruvate to acetyl-coenzyme A, this enzyme carries out the decarboxylation of pyruvate, whereby carbon dioxide (CO2) is removed from the molecule. What caught my attention is that this process, the decarboxylation of pyruvate, was referred to as the “Swanson conversion”. I thought this was odd. I did not remember ever reading this during my education as a biochemist or in my whole professional career thereafter. I found a Wikipedia entry that cited a link from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to justify naming this reaction in this way. But this link did not have any such information. I checked my old biochemistry books, and there was no mention that this process is called the Swanson conversion. Who was Dr. Swanson and when did he/she perform the research on the decarboxylation of pyruvate?
I checked the scientific databases. The PubMed database has no entries regarding the Swanson conversion. Also, although this database has 1068 entries regarding pyruvate decarboxylation, none of them are associated with anyone named Swanson. Switching the term of the search to “pyruvate dehydrogenase” yields 18,080 hits of which only 8 are associated with a person named Swanson, but none of these articles are specifically about this mechanism. I performed searches with Google Scholar, Science Direct, and WorldWideScience but no luck either. None of these or other bona fide science websites seemed to have any mention of the Swanson conversion or of the pioneering work of Dr. Swanson on pyruvate decarboxylation that led to this process being named after him or her.
I then proceeded to google “Swanson conversion” along with the term “pyruvate” (to eliminate from the hits religious conversions experienced by people named Swanson and conversions (as in scoring) by sport players named Swanson). I came up with 687 results. These hits include entries in sites like the World Heritage Encyclopedia, the World Library, and in the Chemical Entities of Biological Interest (ChEBI) website, which is associated with the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). I also found entries in study websites in the form of study sets, lecture and exam flashcards, and even an AP video. There is a generation of students out there who is learning that the pyruvate decarboxylation step of the pyruvate dehydrogenase reaction is named the Swanson conversion!
As I was going over the links to webpages that mentioned the Swanson conversion, I noticed that many of them where either from Wikipedia or contained or referenced Wikipedia content. Finally in the website “Answers.com” I found the following unsettling claim:
“The Swanson Conversion is another term for Pyruvate Decarboxylation. It is part of the process by which cells produce ATP and takes place before the Krebs Cycle. The origin of the name "the Swanson Conversion" is unknown, but the story goes that there was a high school biology teacher named Swanson who wanted something named after himself, so he told his students to put "the Swanson Conversion" down as another name for pyruvate decarboxylation on its wikipedia page and spread the name around the internet to gain it credibility, and now the name is commonly used as a substitute for "pyruvate carboxylation".
Of course, I have no way of knowing if this is true, but it would be consistent with the apparent lack of information regarding this topic. And if this was a joke, it seems to have caught on. Eight of the google hits I obtained also claimed that the Swanson conversion is also known as the “Naypyidaw Reaction”. One even called it the “Metallica reaction”.
I don’t know if the people responsible for this will one day come out (like the jokesters who made the crop circles in Britain or the ones that faked the iconic photograph of the Loch Ness monster) to alert the world of its gullibility and the perils of online sites, but I am a bit miffed by this occurrence. Scientists devote their lives to grueling research that more often than not produces dead ends, anxiety, and depression. Along the way there are small victories and the pleasure of small discoveries, but sometimes with the right mix of genius, vision, and luck a scientist discovers or achieves something important enough to have an impact on society and to be associated with their names. I consider this joke to be a slap in the face of these generations of scientists that have made and still are making the world a better place.
Update 10-22-17: The mystery of the Swanson Conversion has been solved!
Image of Pyruvate Dehydrogenase Complex Reaction by akane700 (CC BY-SA 3.0).