Charles Darwin in a letter Joseph D. Hooker in February 1871 speculated that life might have originated in “some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c., present, that a proteine compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes”. The search for the origin of life continues.
Felisa Wolfe-Simon (shown on the left), supported by NASA’s Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology (Exo/Evo) Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, is a researcher working with programs to determining the evolution of genes, metabolic pathways, and microbial species on Earth in order to understand the potential for life on other worlds.
Wolfe-Simon’s pending announcement of a recent discovery was touted as the first time in the history of biology that an organism has been found to use a different element to build one of its most basic structures.
The announcement seized immediate media attention. The NASA media advisory on November 29 stated: “NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.”
The media expected an announcement for the discovery of extraterrestrial life—a decades long NASA goal. MSNBC primetime news claimed that scientists that have discovered “life as we do not know it”. The paper appeared in the December 2nd issue of “Science Express” and is slated for publication in the journal Science.
The Wall Street Journal reported that “[s]o great was the media stampede that even the White House and members of Congress were calling on NASA to clarify. Even a Nature news article suggests “you can potentially cross phosphorus off the list of elements required for life.”
As it turned out, however, NASA was only talking about a study at Mono Lake, California, showing evidence for a microbe using arsenic in the DNA or RNA rather than phosphorus. Crazy enough, the news was not news. A 2004 paper published in Microbiology Ecology entitled, “The Microbial Arsenic Cycle in Mono Lake, California” by Ronald S. Oremland, et. al., had already detailed how microbes use arsenic and phosphorus.
At first, the controversy over NASA’s arsenic-loving bugs centered on whether the space agency had found astrobiological evidence for aliens. Since then, the debate has ping-ponged the other way, with scientists questioning whether the bacteria even love arsenic at all.
A sampling of opinions –
Premature – Scientific American‘s Alla 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 bacterium are “simply absorbing and isolating arsenate while making use of the trace phosphates in its environments.”
Very Flawed – Carl Zimmer at Slate 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 shoe.” The title of Zimmers article was “This Paper Should Not Have Been Published“.
Nonsense – University of British Columbia microbiology professor Rosie 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.”
Nothing New – Paul Davies of NASA and Arizona State University admits the bacterium is not a new life form: “It can grow with either phosphorous or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly ‘alien’ life belonging to a different tree of life with a separate origin.” to the bench to do more cleanup and controls.”
Media’s Fault – Discover‘s Jennifer Welsh blames the press for misrepresenting the nature of the study featuring the “incredibly misleading article” published on The Huffington Post entitled – “NASA Announcement LIVE: New Life Form Discovered (VIDEO)”.
Plenty of Blame – The Guardian‘s Martin 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.”
The government supported evolution industry, driven by a dying paradigm in the disparate pursuit to find Darwin’s “little pond” for the origins of life, is found pressured into “shooting itself in the foot”, once again. NASA hallucinations on arsenic are reminiscent of England’s infamous Piltdown man fiasco circulated nearly 100 years ago.