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).
9/13/2017 11:56:29 am
Well, what do you know? In my experience, if there's one thing that I always hear from Wikipediots, it's something along these lines: "Well, for articles about politics or celebrities, Wikipedia might be vulnerable to bias or vandalism, but the articles about math and science are always highly reliable." I guess it ain't so.
8/8/2018 07:08:51 am
The backstory for the name is 100% true. I went to that high school. I never had him as a teacher but that story is the stuff of legend in the science wing.
1/17/2020 06:10:10 am
This is true, I'm typing this in his class rn
9/17/2017 02:44:41 pm
If somebody states something in a comment in Wikipedia and cites references, then the editor has to check the references to make sure that the comment is justified. In this case the citation was bogus as it did not contain any mention of the "Swanson Conversion", and apparently the editor did not detect this.But because no scientific editor is an expert in every field and some comments can be highly technical, there is a good chance that mistakes will creep into the science articles in Wikipedia. Thanks for your comment.
10/14/2017 12:39:14 pm
Rolando, you seem to be labouring under a misconception as to how Wikipedia works. When members of the public contribute to Wikipedia, their edits immediately go live. It's not like they make a comment or suggestion which is then reviewed by an editor (in the old sense of the word) first, before being implemented and shown to readers. Wikipedia does not have editors in that sense – i.e. it does not have designated experts who take responsibility for an article, and have a duty to vet, or right to veto, changes to it. After changes are made to an article, someone else may check (and undo) them after the event, but it's never guaranteed that such checking will take place in a timely manner, and there are well publicised cases of fake information staying in Wikipedia for years.
10/28/2017 10:27:52 pm
Thanks for the clarification, Andreas. I know the comments go live right away, and I used the word editor for lack of a better term.What I meant to say is that even if the person checking what is posted is an expert in an area (say biochemistry), they are very unlikely to have an in-depth knowledge of the whole area. So somebody who has studied lipid metabolism may not know enough about nucleotide metabolism. This makes it very likely that mistakes and hoaxes will go undetected, and this has happened numerous times.
2/26/2018 07:45:31 am
IM CRYING SWANSON IS MY HIGH SCHOOL BIO TEACHER ONE OF HIS OLD STUDENTS ADDED THIS TO WIKI AS A JOKE AND HE LOVED IT SO MUCH IT STAYED A RUNNING THING IN HIS CLASS IM PART OF A LEGEND LMAO
3/2/2018 04:12:50 pm
Thanks for your comment, Damien. We did eventually figure this out: https://ratioscientiae.weebly.com/ratio-scientiae-blog/the-mystery-of-the-swanson-conversion-solved
11/30/2018 02:47:25 pm
Have Swanson as my bio teacher this year. Story has once again been retold! And this time, the articles have worked their way into it. Swanson is a great teacher and a very funny, charismatic guy. Great story aswell.
12/4/2018 05:16:32 pm
Thanks for your comment, Benny.
2/19/2019 07:17:20 am
Mr Swanson was my bio teacher in highschool and he was the most savage human I will ever have the honor to meet. Student made that Wikipedia entry because Swanson continuously called it the Swanson conversion because the real name is a little long and annoying. The man deserves the name soley because his hall pass was either a cinder block with hall pass spray painted on it, or a giant board you had to carry with a picture of his dog on it. Truly a savage man...
2/19/2019 05:14:15 pm
Ok...thanks for your comment, Brandon.
1/5/2023 08:31:49 am
Mr Swanson is the best bio teacher ever I love his characteristics and there’s no way he is ever doing something wrong!
1/6/2023 04:13:33 pm
Thanks for your comments Sabina. I have written more posts about this topic (follow the link at the end of the article). I don't doubt Mr. Swanson is a great teacher and person, but I believe it was wrong of him to not request that his student delete the Swanson Conversion hoax. As a result of this, this hoax has found its way into mainstream science (https://www.ratioscientiae.com/ratio-scientiae-blog/the-wikipedia-swanson-conversion-hoax-spreads-into-mainstream-science).
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