DOIs, or Direct Object Identifiers, are fantastically useful little strings of text that serve to uniquely identify research papers, so that no matter what database you’re querying and no matter what paper you’re linking to, you’ll get the right thing back. Unlike books in a library, which can have later editions or have their call numbers change, a DOI is the same number for the same document, period. Handy. In much the same way PR outfits and legal beagles can monitor the Web for mentions of certain strings of text like “09 F9…,” an outfit called Altmetrics looks for Web pages that link to research papers by their DOI, and tallies up mentions by what kind of site is doing the mention: sites like ExtremeTech, aggregators like Reddit, tweets, and so on. Based on the Altmetrics stats, here’s what really got people talking this year:

Sweet little lies

Scientists and the food industry clutched their collective pearls at the revelation, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that back in 1964, a group of sugar lobbyists talked (by which I mean paid) some scientists from Harvard into using their scientific authority to mislead healthcare professionals and the public about the relative health risks of sugar. It was a classic salvo in this food fad war we have, where every year an industry-sponsored research group brings one food into vogue or demonizes another. The lobbyists wanted the Harvard researchers to suppress data demonstrating that sugar is positively associated with coronary artery disease. Because there weren’t mandatory conflict-of-interest rules at the New England Journal of Medicine, and because the Harvard researchers were respected in their fields, the lobbyists’ fraudulent studies were able to slip through the sanity check.

JAMA said, JAMA said

Fitbits are hot. I have a Fitbit, and I use it to put a little data into my life using their sleep and activity tracking. (Nobody gave me anything for talking about Fitbits; I bought mine secondhand from a professor friend.) Many people who have Fitbits, including me, aspire to lose weight. This summer, the JAMA also reported — to the surprise of exactly nobody — that wearable trackers like Fitbits are not like the weight-loss pills sold by Adipose Industries, and having such a device is not itself enough to make you lose weight. The study found that among a group of people following an otherwise identical diet and exercise regime, those who were randomized to wear the discontinued BodyMedia Fitcore armband trackers did not lose more weight than those who did not have the trackers. It turns out that you have to do more than own a glorified pedometer to take off the pounds.
The report concludes that wearable tech like the Fitcore, and therefore by allusion trackers like the Fitbit, “may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches.” But the researchers didn’t give the participants any instruction on how to use the Fitcore trackers and website effectively. To my mind, that’s important because among the few things that are proven to help people lose weight, “accountability buddies” rank high; Fitbits have a buddy system where you can challenge friends and gamify the process of getting fit. The authors didn’t even mention diet, exercise, or lifestyle patterns known to influence weight loss or gain in their study. Also, they were still collecting data with the Fitcore in December 2014, but Jawbone bought BodyMedia and had discontinued the Fitcore in October of that year, deprecating support and allowing the website’s usefulness to erode. The company formally killed the Fitcore in January of 2016. So what these researchers really proved is that, when handed a limited tool you don’t know how to use, you don’t get much additional benefit.
Imagine that.

Some devil

Robin Williams was just one more beloved casualty of the carnage that has been the past few years. Even so, even in death, he manages to shed his own particular light. Williams’ particular demise, while grim, lit a fire under neuroscience’s collective butt — kindled and fanned in no small part by the indomitable Susan Williams, Robin’s wife. Her plea for more research this year into Lewy body dementia galvanized donors and researchers, and those who are interested in such research.

Blue genes

Scientists built a “synthetic bacteria” in the lab this year. Well, actually, what they did is start with Mycoplasma mycoides, which has among the simplest and smallest genomes of all bacteria, and then carefully pared away its genome in experiment after experiment until they arrived at a “minimal set” of genes essential to life. The resulting independent single-celled organism happily multiplied in its sterile, comfortable nutrient bath, but obviously wouldn’t have done so well in a less-controlled environment. I don’t know what this proves, exactly, but it sure does imply that the information necessary to pass on life sure doesn’t take up much disk space.

Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea

Everybody’s heard of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Some have even heard of local legends like Champy, the Champlain monster. Cryptozoology is fun, in the way that reading the rest of Weekly World News is fun — and what will Bat Boy think up next? But there are some creatures, especially those that live in the deep, whose truth is stranger than fiction. Meet the Tully Monster:
nature16992-f1
Chomp chomp chomp. Fig. 1, Briggs, McCoy et al, 2016
The Tully Monster was first found in Illinois, not too far from Chicago. Illinois is pretty far inland, but back when the Tully Monster lived, water levels were very different. During that time, while the whole Great Plains was an inland saltwater sea, Tullimonstrum swamped around the marine Midwest, derping its way around the depths eating plankton. Scientists first dug it up in the 1950s, in a bed of fossils just south of Terre Haute, and promptly sat there for about sixty years scratching their heads at what kind of a creature it was at all.
A lot of the crazier-looking beasties of the deep ocean are distant cousins to the lamprey, an eldritch horror that evolved early, fell out of the ugly tree and hit every stick on the way down. The Tully Monster was a close relative of the lamprey. Forensic analysis of more than a thousand different partial or whole sets of Tully Monster remains has also revealed the presence of pockets of pigment cells that evolved on a particular, late branch of the tree of life, proving that the Monster was a vertebrate. Somehow there was a functioning skeletal system in that schnozz. Skeletal-ish. Scientists think that’s how it used its beaky proboscis to grab food.

Tiny dancer

Let us not forget the tardigrades. They continue to be made of indestructible win, and scientists have started to piece together why. It’s mostly in their genes. Tardigrades are exquisitely specialized to deal with conditions that would be lethal to most things; they can survive freezing, dehydration, radiation and even the vacuum of space. Long live the tardigrade. Live tiny, die never.