On April 29 of 2017, I posted in this blog about a Wikipedia mystery. The mystery concerned a chemical reaction linking the processes of glycolysis, where sugars are converted to a metabolite called pyruvate, and the Krebs Cycle, where pyruvate is oxidized to carbon dioxide and water, producing the majority of the energy that most living things use. This linkage involves a reaction which contains a step where a molecule of carbon dioxide is removed from pyruvate in a process called “decarboxylation”. I found that this pyruvate decarboxylation step was named the “Swanson Conversion” in a Wikipedia page dealing with this subject. The problem was that nowhere in the biochemical literature was there any mention of this metabolic step using that name.
In another post, I wrote about the solution to this mystery. Andreas Kolbe, who posts on Twitter under the handle “Wikiland”, contacted me to let me know that he had found the perpetrator of the hoax. Apparently a high school teacher named Swanson referred to this particular metabolic step in his classes as the Swanson conversion to help his students learn its importance in the whole process. One of his students then decided to edit a Wikipedia article naming this reaction “The Swanson Conversion”. When the teacher found out about this edit, rather than notify Wikipedia, he decided to use this occurrence as an experiment to see how long it would be before it got detected. He also presented this as an example to his students of how you have to be cautious when using Wikipedia.
According to Wikipedia, the hoax remained in the Wikipedia page dealing with pyruvate decarboxylation for 6 years and 6 ½ months, and they quote one of my posts to explain the edit removing the term “Swanson Conversion” from the page. While this hoax holds the record for the longest that a chemistry/biochemistry hoax has survived in Wikipedia so far, it is by no means the longest hoax. There are 85 detected hoaxes in Wikipedia that have lasted longer than the Swanson Conversion, with the longest hoax (the claim that “Vivarem” is a Sanskrit word) surviving 12 years and 9 months before being detected.
Wikipedia hoaxes have made their way into newspapers and academic publications, only to then be quoted by Wikipedia in support of the hoax in a process that has been humorously termed “citogenesis” or more formally “circular reporting”. Because of this, I was interested in investigating whether this hoax had made its way into mainstream science. In my previous post, I mentioned that I had found at least one scientific article that included the hoax.
A Single Regulator Mediates Strategic Switching between Attachment/Spread and Growth/Virulence in the Plant Pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum by Khokhani and coworkers was published in the journal mBio in 2017.
The mention appears in the “Results” section of the article:
“The low-cell-density-mimicking strain also upregulated genes involved in fatty acid metabolism, such as the Swanson conversion of pyruvate to acetyl-coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA), acyl-CoA dehydrogenases and acetyltransferases, and the trifunctional enoyl-CoA hydratase/ delta3-cis-delta2-trans-enoyl-CoA isomerase/3-hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydrogenase that catalyzes the -oxidation of fatty acids (Fig. 3).”
Since then, I have found 2 additional articles that contain the hoax.
Understanding the microbial basis of body odor in pre-pubescent children and teenagers by Lam and coworkers published in the Journal Microbiome in 2018.
The mention also appears in the “Results” section of the article.
“In an independent pathway, enzymes involved in oxidative degradation of pyruvate aliphatic carboxylates to acetyl-CoA (Swanson Conversion) in a process that is key to the production of acetic acid and sour odor were found to be malodor-associated in S. epidermidis (Fig. 3d; e.g., pyruvate dehydrogenase (EC:188.8.131.52)).”
Dissecting the transcriptional networks underlying the gibberellin response in Nicotiana tabacum by Manoharlal and coworkers published in the journal Biologia Plantarum in 2018.
The mention appears in the “Results and Discussion” section of the article (note: this article is not freely available online).
“A pyruvate dehydrogenase complex (a PDHC-E3 subunit, dihydrolipoyl dehydrogenase) catalyzes the conversion of pyruvate to acetyl-CoA by pyruvate decarboxylation (Swanson conversion), thereby paving the entry of pyruvate into the TCA cycle, was observed to be significantly down-regulated (RFC = -3.81).”
Apart from these 3 articles, I also found 2 patent applications that include the hoax.
Methods of selecting subjects for treatment with metabolic modulators by David Kolb filed in 2017
“The pyruvate dehydrogenase complex facilitates conversion of pyruvate into acetyl-CoA by pyruvate decarboxylation (Swanson Conversion) thus linking the glycolysis metabolic pathway to the citric acid cycle.”
Pharmaceutical Compositions Affecting Bioenergetic Processes in a Eukaryotic Biological System and Methods of Treatment by James Sheehan filed in 2016
“Acetyl-CoA is produced during cellular respiration during the Swanson Conversion, which takes place in the mitochondria of eukaryotic bioenergetic systems.”
The hoax has also made it into the webpage of at least one corporation. The company BOC Sciences, which sells chemical and biological products, includes the hoax in a webpage describing one of its products.
The pyruvate dehydrogenase complex contributes to transforming pyruvate into acetyl-CoA by a process called pyruvate decarboxylation (Swanson Conversion).
As you can see, these descriptions mention the Swanson Conversion as if it were established science without even quoting a reference to justify the name. If this hoax had not been detected and removed from Wikipedia, some of these references could have been cited in support of the hoax closing the circular reporting (citogenesis) loop. Another interesting aspect is that although the hoax was introduced in 2010, the earliest mention I have found so far of the hoax in the mainstream scientific literature is the patent filing from 2016. This may indicate that several years are required before a Wikipedia hoax enters the scientific literature, or that during this time frame scientists acquired the mentality that it’s acceptable to use Wikipedia as a source, or that the hoax was taught to science students as fact (see below).
There is also the question of how the Swanson Conversion hoax made its way into mainstream science. I can imagine two ways:
1) When scientists without a very in depth knowledge of the topic (and no one can be an expert in everything) took the information directly from Wikipedia or from a source that mirrors or quotes Wikipedia.
Although this mistake is not excusable, it is understandable. The technical literature seldom contains readily accessible repositories of the most basic information presented in a straightforward way for every topic. The temptation is always there to save time and accept the abbreviated information provided by Wikipedia or related sites without consulting additional literature.
2) When students who have been taught the hoax advance in a career in the chemical or biochemical sciences and are asked to contribute to write parts of scientific articles or other documents.
These students may go back to check their old study notes and end up perpetuating the hoax. In my first post about the Swanson Conversion hoax, I mentioned that several websites featuring the hoax provide study support for students in the form of study sets, lectures, flash cards, mock exams, and even videos. Many students were and are still being educated with the notion that this hoax is true.
As you can see Mr. Swanson’s high school experiment is still ongoing, and it has made the transition from a mere Wikipedia entry into mainstream science. Now that the hoax has been exposed and deleted from Wikipedia, will that stop its spread? How far will the Swanson Conversion infiltrate the scientific establishment? How long will it go? Stay tuned and I will keep you posted!