Last week, NASA researchers announced the discovery
of a bacterium containing arsenic-based DNA in California's Mono Lake.
(All other forms of life use phosphorous instead.) Published in Science
magazine, the results prompted immediate speculation
about it whether it would affect the search for life on earth and beyond. One week later, both the
results and the way they were presented to the public is drawing scrutiny
A sampling of opinions from around the web:
- Premature Scientific
Katsnelson says the findings NASA released last week were
incomplete and at times contradictory. Dubious to begin with, the
results of the study were "communicated to non-specialists" in a
slapdash manner that suggested a "new chemistry of life" had been
discovered, a claim that was "at best premature." Katsnelson notes the
study fails to identify any compounds containing arsenic, a glaring
oversight considering "the team could have directly confirmed or
disproved the presence of arsenic in the DNA or RNA using targeted mass
spectrometry." The researchers also ignore indications in their own data
that, rather than building biomolecules, the bacteria is "simply
absorbing and isolating arsenate while making use of the trace
phosphates in its environments."
- Very Flawed The existence of
arsenic-based life is far from impossible, but the study's sloppy
methodology taints these results, writes Carl Zimmer
at Slate. Zimmer blames the researchers for failing to take "basic
precautions to avoid misleading results ... when the NASA scientists took
the DNA out of the bacteria, for example, they ought to have taken extra
steps to wash away any other kinds of molecules. Without these
precautions, arsenic could have simply glommed to the DNA, like gum on a
- Nonsense University of British Columbia microbiology
Redfield eviscerates the paper in a detailed review posted to her
research blog. "Basically," she writes, "[the paper] doesn't present ANY
convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any
other biological molecule)." What it does offer is "lots of
flim-flam ... if this data was presented by a PhD student at their
committee meeting, I'd send them back to the bench to do more cleanup
- Media's Fault Discover's Jennifer
Welsh blames the press for misrepresenting the nature of the study.
The results--assuming they hold up to further scrutiny--are "amazing
and definitely shed new light search for life in extreme (even
extraterrestrial) environment," but don't represent a meaningful
breakthrough in the search for extraterrestrial life. The bacteria in
question isn't alien--it's from California. Despite "the build up, the
early embargo break, and a long press conference," many media outlets
still missed the distinction.
- Plenty Of Blame The Guardian's Martin
Robbins observes that when a story is this thoroughly botched by all
parties involved, it is difficult--and maybe even pointless--to play
the blame game. Better instead, Robbins suggests, to treat the whole
thing as a cautionary tale, "a story of everything that's wrong about
the relationship between science, peer review, the world of publishing,
and the mainstream and independent branches of the media in 2010."
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