Via Retraction Watch, here’s a situation that I don’t recall seeing before: a group at Foshan University in China published a paper in the journal Natural Product Research on the crystal structure of aspergicine. Here’s the original abstract in PubMed – their work prompted them to revise their previously published structure of a related alkaloid, aspergicin, which the group had first reported in 2011. These compounds are produced by an Aspergillus marine fungus that lives in mangrove swamps – and so far, this sounds like perfectly typical natural products work.
Unfortunately, it turns out that aspergicine itself was already a known compound, only it was known under the name “Circumdatin B”. It had been reported in 2008 by a group in Japan, in a J. Org. Chem. paper where, by golly, X-ray crystallography was used to determine the structure. Now, I can certainly imagine rediscovering a natural product without realizing it at first. And in this case, since the structure was at first wrongly assigned by the group from Foshan, a structure search through the literature wouldn’t have turned it up.
But after you’ve gone to the trouble of getting an X-ray structure and revised your first proposal, you don’t run that one through the literature search engines again? And you don’t check to see if that structure is already in the X-ray databases? Being scooped in a race to discovery is one thing; finding out that your compound’s structure was reported almost ten years ago is quite another. And another point: you don’t go back on principle and read all the literature on the isolated alkaloids from your exact species of Aspergillus to see if those publications might possibly have any bearing on your own work?
This latest paper has now been retracted, as it should be, so the scientific record has been pulled back into line on this topic. But how did things get to this state? Admittedly, the name and structure of a particular fungal product from the mangrove swamps is probably not such a big deal, but (A) natural products have a way of being either totally obscure or wildly important all of a sudden and (B), in the larger scheme, this is no way to do research on anything, from swamp fungi on up.