NASA’s New Life in Arsenic Findings Find Doubt in Scientific Community

Dec 8, 2010

Perhaps you'll remember that faithful day oh so long ago, when we reported to you that NASA scientists, led by geomicrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon found new life on December 2nd 2010. Now their findings of a bacteria by the name of GFAJ-1, it being able to use arsenic instead of phosphoruous to build its DNA, are said to be crap! Who would say such a thing? Well biologist Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia would say such a thing, specifically “It seems much more likely that the arsenic they’re seeing is contaminating arsenic that’s going along for the ride,” her siting the methods the research team used to purify the DNA in the test. Ruh roh!

Redfield spoke with and wrote a "biting" blog post almost instantly on December 4th, that post being quite popular having received more than 40,000 hits since it's been posted. She notes that cleaning the samples used in the critical experiment would've required “a little kit that costs $2 and takes 10 minutes, and then you have pure DNA that you can analyze. ... That’s just asking for contamination problems, ... It’s as if they wanted to find arsenic, so they didn’t take a lot of trouble to make sure they didn’t find it by mistake.”

Microbiologist / geochemist Alex Bradley asked another question on a blog by the name of We, Beasties on (this site having nothing to do with the Beastie Boys we all know and love) : if the team really did immerse the DNA in water, where arsenic compounds generally quickly fall apart, why didn't the arsenate do just that, unless of course the molecules were still employing phosphate to stay stuck?

Another mind to take apart the situation is science writer Carl Zimmer, who himself wrote more than a few stinging words on the subject then spoke with more than 10 experts, more and more coming on, all coming down to one point wrapped up neatly by Shelly Copley of the University of Colorado: "This paper should not have been published."

When asked about the bad reviews, NASA's spokesperson said thusly:

When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications.

Furthermore, senior author Ronald Oremland of the US Geological Survey spoke to an audience of scientists on December 7 at NASA Headquarters, streaming live in a similar manner to the original announcement of new life, answering questions about the specific tests the team could have performed on the microbes, saying mostly, “There’s a laundry list of things,” and “We can’t do everything.” Responding to the backlash in kind:

“I’m not surprised by pushback from the scientific community and bloggers. That’s part of the process,” he said. “But those are arguments about how many angels on the head of a pin. The only way this is going to get settled is if people reproduce these experiments on their own.”

It'll be interesting to see how these experiments DO unfold, as it'll... well... decide if life really DID expand or not, you know?

[Via Wired]

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