Rewrite the Headlines: Ötzi the Iceman and his bacteria – did he really suffer?
Over the first few weeks of February, we’re showcasing the top entries in both the school and undergraduate categories of our Rewrite the Headlines competition (full list of winners here). We’re now onto the special undergraduate subject prizes, with Dalia Sara Gala at the University of Glasgow winning the History prize, sponsored by the Scottish History Society.
Ötzi the Iceman and his bacteria – did he really suffer?
A mummy found in a glacier in Ötztal Alps, hence named Ötzi the Iceman, was a sensation and a source of precious data at the time of it’s discovery in 1991. Fantastically preserved, the oldest known natural human mummy provided the researchers with an insight into Europeans of early Bronze Age, also called Copper Age.
In a paper published a few days ago in Science Magazine, the researchers looked at the 5300-year-old Helicobacter pylori genome in Ötzi. They investigated the gastrointestinal track contents and screened for the presence of the bacteria. Their main findings state that the sample is nearly purely representative of the H.pylori originating in Asia and does not involve that much of African population. This suggests that the former arrived in Europe past the Copper Age. However, as the sample size is limited to one only, the researchers do not draw any further conclusions, because they do not know if Ötzi is a typical representative of the European population at the time.
This research was reported on numerous online news platforms, including Discovery News. Although the journalist did a really good job in trying to be as accurate as possible, I cannot help but feel that they did all they could to find at least a little bit of drama and mystery in this finding.
Let’s take a look at the title: Oetzi the Iceman Suffered From Stomach Bug. Firstly – his name is correctly spelled as Ötzi , but I am assuming that we can forgive the English speaking world for this simplification. What is more important – up to 85% of people infected with H. pylori never experience symptoms or complications. Why state he ‘suffered’? It is neither clear nor obvious from the piece of research, which does not even concentrate on the Iceman himself, but more on the bacteria population that was found in his intestines. Finally: stomach bug is not a very accurate expression – it might suggest the virus of stomach flu, or just an upset stomach. Simple ‘bacteria’ or ‘bacterial infection’ (although as I mentioned the researchers do not state if it was an infection indeed) would have been more informative.
If we take a closer look at the body of the article, it is both accurate and… inaccurate. The first paragraph is very good – it gives an explanatory background and acknowledges the researchers. It also quotes one of the main authors on what the scientists actually did – they decoded the complete genome of a 5,300-year-old Helicobacter pylori. On the contrary, the further composition of the article is very confusing. The paragraphs have intros of hyperlinks to the previous publications by Discovery News regarding the Iceman. They look a lot like the paragraphs titles, while they are completely not related to the text that follows them. It seems incoherent and distracting.
However, the journalist gives a good explanation on how the scientists identified the presence of H.pylori in the stomach samples. The Iceman’s stomach mucosa was not there anymore, and so the bacteria could not be identified the way it is done in patients nowadays. The paper describes how the scientists used the biopsy and performed a comparative whole-genome analysis to examine the DNA composition of the sample. It would be difficult to explain to an average reader, so the article author simply states: The research team […] solved the problem [of the lack of mucosa] by extracting the entire DNA of the stomach contents.
Funnily enough, the last sentence of the first page almost contradicts the title. When the interviewed research representative stated that whether Ötzi was actually suffering or not cannot be said with any degree of certainty, but it is possible, the writer decided to calm the readers’ nerves and inform them that It [suffering aka H.pylori gastritis] wasn’t, however, a life-threatening condition. Thank you, writer, we all feel better for the Iceman now. Also, you should seriously make your mind as to whether you actually want to state that he suffered or not, because the readers are most certainly experiencing an emotional rollercoaster.
The article reaches the main concern of the research paper on the second page, at which most of the readers probably do not even look. But, having said that, the writer’s explanation of the bacteria strains present in Ötzi versus those found in modern Europeans, as well as their relevance to research on migration waves is simple, accurate and correct. Without going into all the details concerning the scientific methods, an average reader can easily understand what new information this publication provides. The piece ends with a short statement on possible further undertakings in this field, which is a very reasonable and appealing as it refers to mapping the historical human migrations.
Overall it is impossible to say that this online news article is a tabloid-like nonsense, because it aims at being accurate and most if the time it succeeds. It could be too much to ask a journalist to understand all the nuances of a very complicated research process; at the same time simple details like correct spelling or not overdramatizing the title are definitely doable – and this is what could be improved, both by the author and the editors.
One could argue that the researchers could have included more helpful information in their piece. But after all they were publishing in Science; it is a prestigious journal, with limited space that the researchers use very carefully. Moreover, the team provided additional information in the interview; it can be assumed so from the fact that some of the details were not included in the Science paper and they appeared in the Discovery News article. Faulty or not faulty – this was not bad, just a bit funny and incoherent for an aspiring scientist reading it. I am sure thought that this article would fulfill its role or engaging the audience perfectly – and if they wanted to, they could easily search for the original Science paper.
Dalia Sara Gala, University of Glasgow
Lorenzi, R., Oetzi the Iceman Suffered From Stomach Bug, Discovery News January 2016 /available online at http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/oetzi-the-iceman-suffered-from-stomach-bug-160105.htm, as for 10.01.2016/
Maixner et al., The 5300-year-old Helicobacter pylori genome of the Iceman, Science Magazine, 351 (6269): 162-165.
South Tyrol Museum of Archeology, Ötzi – the Iceman /available online at http://www.iceman.it/en/oetzi-the-iceman, as for 10.01.2016/
The Rewrite the Headlines competition was supported by funding from the British Academy, with additional funding from the University of Strathclyde. The History prize was sponsored by the Scottish History Society.
Prizes were supported by the British Academy, the University of Strathclyde, the School of Chemistry at the University of St. Andrews, the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde, the University of Dundee School of Life Sciences, and the Particle Physics Experiment Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, the Social Research Association, the Scottish History Society, and Palgrave Macmillan.
Competition details can be accessed at https://researchtheheadlines.org/rewritetheheadlines, and the full list of winners is available here.