I was amused to see a report over at The Bunsen Burner which summarized a couple of papers attacking the NASA’s arsenic-incorporating-life results. Let me summarize, just in case you missed the arsenic hubbub in December of 2010. NASA’s astrobiology division published in Science about an amazing microorganism living in Mono Lake, California that could tolerate truly amazing amounts of arsenic and very little phosphorous.
If NASA had stopped with a description of the organism then the paper would’ve been fascinating, compelling and a new view into the extreme niches that life can take. But they went a bit further.
In the abstract we can spot the trouble: “Here, we describe a bacterium, strain GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae, isolated from Mono Lake, California, that is able to substitute arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth.” This one sentence (and the experiments and data supporting it) have been attacked in a half dozen different seminars I’ve attended as well as a few “beer summits” between myself and other science types.
A statement like “arsenic can sustain life” is to scientists as a Kardashian wedding is to normal people. It generates talk and that’s how it should be. When a single, very high profile paper, purports to contradict our fundamental model of the universe it should be discussed and debated. Remember the faster than light neutrino thing?
That result is dead. Very dead in fact. I think Adrian Cho put it best only a couple of days ago:
Enough already. Five different teams of physicists have now independently verified that elusive subatomic particles called neutrinos do not travel faster than light…. So instead of the nail in the coffin of faster-than-light neutrinos, the new suite of results is more like the sod planted atop their grave.
These two vignettes, along with the accompanying high-profile attacks, are unfortunate black eyes to science. They encourage misunderstanding about the nature of scientific progress. Results like these are the majority of ones the lay public hears about through the media. This feeds the anti-science trolls like the anti-vaccine movement and the homeopaths. If science is constantly being attacked and overturned (in the media and therefore their minds) then they might as well attack it too.
Lost in the noise is the little organism GFAJ-1 which is actually really cool. It continues on living in an environment that would kill most of the life on the planet. There are some problems with the first study of it, but there are still questions to be answered about the little guy. And that’s some interesting science.
Look at me still blogging when there’s science to do.