Philip Ball asks why a spectacular claim seems to have been overlooked. Sometimes science doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to

It looks like one of the most astonishing discoveries in a century, yet it was almost entirely ignored. And it came from Luc Montagnier, awarded the Nobel prize in medicine for his co-discovery of the Aids virus HIV. In 2011, Montagnier reported that he and his coworkers could use the polymerase chain reaction (PCR, the conventional method of amplifying strands of DNA) to synthesise DNA sequences of more than 100 base pairs, without any of the target strands present to template the process.1 All they needed was water. Water, that is, first subjected to very low-frequency electromagnetic waves emitted and recorded from solutions of DNA encoding the target sequence. In other words, the information in a DNA strand could be transmitted, via water, by electromagnetic emissions.

You may think this work was ignored for good reason, namely that it’s utterly implausible. I agree: it doesn’t even begin to make sense given what we know about the molecular ingredients. But the claims were unambiguous. The authors say they took a 104 base pair fragment of DNA from HIV (and who knows about that better than Montagnier?) and copied it, reproducibly and with at least 98% fidelity, by adding the PCR ingredients to the irradiated water. How could this be ignored – is Montagnier simply being dismissed as a liar? 

Perhaps we should stop pretending science works as the books say it does

I don’t think so. Rather, he’s being judged by a different set of standards than the textbook model in which scientific claims are tested and then accepted or rejected depending on the result. Of course, many trivial claims never get replicated (that’s another story), but the popular picture is that really big ones – and they don’t come much bigger than this – are immediately interrogated by other labs. After all, that’s what happened with cold fusion, however implausible it seemed. True, some results can’t be replicated without highly specialised kit and expertise – there’s nowhere outside of CERN equipped to verify the Higgs boson sighting. But Montagnier and colleagues used nothing more than you’d find in most molecular biology labs worldwide.

What we’re really seeing tested here are the unwritten social codes of science. Montagnier has long been seen as something of a maverick, but in recent years some have accused him of descending into quackery. Since claiming in 2009 that some DNA emits electromagnetic signals,2 he has suggested that such signals can be detected in the blood of children with autism and that this justifies treating autism with antibiotics. He appears to suggest that HIV can be defeated with diet and supplements, and commends the notorious ‘memory of water’ proposed by French immunologist Jacques Benveniste.3 Although he is currently the head of the World Foundation for Aids Research and Prevention in Paris, his unorthodox views have prompted some leading researchers to question his suitability to lead such projects.

But science judges results, not people, right? So let’s look at the paper. At face value, making a simple claim, it is in fact so peppered with oddness that other researchers probably imagine any attempt at replication will be deeply unrewarding. There are hints that the electromagnetic emissions come from a baffling and bloody-minded universe: their strength doesn’t correlate with concentration, they appear at some dilutions and vanish in others, and there is no rhyme or reason to which organisms or sequences produce them and which don’t. That the authors show the signals not as ordinary graphs but as a screenshot adds to the misgivings.

Then there’s the ‘explanation’. Montagnier has teamed up with Italian physicist Emilio Del Giudice and his colleagues, who in 1988 published a ‘theory of liquid water based on quantum field theory’,4 which proposed that water molecules can form ‘coherent domains’ about 100nm in size containing ‘almost free electrons’ that can absorb electromagnetic energy and use it to create self-organised dissipative structures. These coherent domains are, however, a quantum putty to be shaped to order, not a theory to be tested. They haven’t yet been clearly detected, nor have they convincingly explained a single problem in chemical physics, but they have been invoked to account for Benveniste’s results and cold fusion, and now they can explain Montagnier’s findings on the basis that the signals from DNA can somehow shape the domains to stand in for the DNA itself in the PCR process.

Make of this what you will; the real issue here is that it all looks puzzling, even prejudiced, to outsiders, who understandably cannot fathom why a startling claim by a distinguished scientist is apparently just being brushed aside. Perhaps it might help to stop pretending that science works as the books say it does. Perhaps also, given that Montagnier says his findings are motivating clinical trials to ‘test new therapeutics’ for HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, it might be wise to subject them to more scrutiny after all.