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NASA's 'Arsenic Microbe' Science Under Fire

CmdrTaco posted more than 3 years ago | from the arsenic-is-yummy dept.

NASA 152

radioweather writes "The cryptic press release NASA made last week that set the blogosphere afire with conjecture, which announced: '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.' may be a case of 'go fever' science pushed too quickly by press release. A scathing article in Slate.com lists some very prominent microbiologists who say the NASA-backed study is seriously flawed and that the finding may be based on something as simple as poor sample washing to remove phosphate contamination. One of the scientists, Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado said 'This paper should not have been published,' while another, John Roth of UC-Davis says: 'I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story that they didn't look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people,' The experience reminded some of another press conference NASA held in 1996. Scientists unveiled a meteorite from Mars in which they said there were microscopic fossils. A number of critics condemned the report (also published in Science) for making claims it couldn't back up."

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152 comments

First extremophile post! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34485662)

Murp!

NASA is becoming sad... (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34485690)

I can't bear to follow them any more
They used to be able to call press conferences for event like "Hey, we landed on the Moon!" "Hey, we put a telescope in orbit!" Then they started with "Hey, we landed on Mars! Only at a much steeper angle due to some conversion error..." arriving to the current "Hey, we don't have any budget for space stuff, but this paper here looks interesting!"...

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (4, Insightful)

arkane1234 (457605) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485748)

That tends to happen when we live in a time when warfare in multiple countries is worth more than expanding the knowledge.
I mean, at least WW2 produced SOMETHING that altered science... the atomic era. What do we have... Remote-control planes? better guns?
On top of it, mothballing existing projects... ugh
Why does it seem like we're in high school and the asshat "cool" kids have taken office?

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (3, Insightful)

marcosdumay (620877) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485878)

"I mean, at least WW2 produced SOMETHING that altered science... the atomic era. What do we have... Remote-control planes? better guns?"

The atomic era, and the computers era, let's not forget the latter. That happened because duing WWII the budget for science was huge, much bigger than during the previous times. And that happened because there was a real war going on, and everything implied that the party with the best science would win (as it did). Nowadays, the budget for science is being cut for letting more available to spend on war, on those countries that are participating on the current warmongering.

"Why does it seem like we're in high school and the asshat "cool" kids have taken office?"

Well, one thing is for sure, if you live in a democratic country, the ones in the office are all "cool" man.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34487640)

Not just that, a good chunk of the money goes towards wasted bullets in suppressive fire.
Here's a thought, why not make a device that sends out noises that sound like bullets hitting objects! Oh wait...

Actually, that really is a good idea. There are those directional speakers that vibrate the air almost like a laser goes in a straight line.
The sound wave is an almost perfect cuboid, and can even travel faster than sound usually does. (or circular cylinder, whatever they want to use)
A few tweaks to send even more concentrated sound off a wall to make a mini explosion of sound could give the impression of bullets hitting it.
There you go, guys, problem solved. Fund THAT and stop wasting so many bullets, giving people even more time to aim at enemies heads to at least kill them in a slightly more humane way...

Also, majorly off-topic.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34486472)

You forgot hitting 500,000 civilian deaths achievement (i.e. in Iraq alone).

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34486892)

You forgot hitting 500,000 civilian deaths achievement (i.e. in Iraq alone).

Iraq has a population of about 30,000,000. Are you trying to say that we have killed 1 of every 60 people in Iraq? Actually, those numbers would be much higher in the areas we operate in since we don't really do a whole lot in Kurdish and other regions of Iraq.

In other words, you are full of shit and you are using made up numbers to try prove a point. How can we take your point seriously when you are lying about the numbers? Your premise is flawed.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (1)

Nikker (749551) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487980)

Just need to point out you don't offer any proof or citation yourself so how do you know the original figure is incorrect? Gut feeling?

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (2)

babblefrog (1013127) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488592)

One source for number like that would be the "Lancet surveys of Iraq War Casualties" on wikipedia.

War is hell.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (1)

Attila Dimedici (1036002) | more than 3 years ago | (#34489308)

Yes, and the Lancet surveys worked by asking people in a particular area (I do not remember which area of Iraq anymore, but I believe it was one of the areas of more intense fighting) if they knew anyone killed or injured by the war, assuming that each of those was a separate, actual event and then extrapolating to the entire country.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (1)

AvitarX (172628) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486504)

Because the asshat cool kids are the ones that get elected (from any party).

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34487048)

The asshat "cool" kids were elected class president... why would you assume anything would change?

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (5, Insightful)

Sockatume (732728) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486488)

They've assembled a space telescope, landed several autonomous rovers on Mars that have exceeded their mission profile tenfold, have a squadron of probes out in the gas giants, another heading for Pluto, a next-generation space telescope the size of a bus is currently under construction. NASA's got a lot of problems but the selectivity of your examples is comical, and your argument bewildering. It's not like the rocket guys go on holiday when the astrobiologists decide to start working on something.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (1)

interval1066 (668936) | more than 3 years ago | (#34489246)

Lets all not get so excited. This is actually the empirical method in action. Its up to the NASA microbiologists to defend their findings, if the findings are bonafide they've got nothing to worry about. This is really nothing new in science, some one finds something new, the skeptics come in and tear it apart, the finder defends his findings, some other researcher duplicates the findings, then NOBEL PRIZE. Just give NASA some more time to either verify or become a laughing stock. Its up to them. Nothing to see here, really.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (2)

comp.sci (557773) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487372)

You know, many "this paper looks interesting" discoveries had a larger impact on your life through medicine etc than landing on the moon. Don't discredit something with potentially huge implications just because you can't "see" it, groundbreaking discoveries can be on any scale.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34489154)

If true this makes the moon landing look like a minor detail. Sure it does't have the same cool factor but to those of us in the sciences it's like Christmas came early this year.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (4, Insightful)

gad_zuki! (70830) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488298)

I hate how cynical and ignorant mods mod people like you up.

First off, you are engaging in the fallacy of idealizing the past, a particular popular fallacy on slashdot. I find the more recent NASA accomplishments a lot more impressive than just lobbing meatbags onto the nearest satellite. Robotic rovers on mars, stardust mission, all manner of flybys and good space science, planetary probe hubble and webb in 2014, etc, Heck, we just had a god damn comet flyby last month.

You want expensive moon missions? Convince your fellow voters to trim 100+ billion off our bloated military budget and to put into NASA. NASA gets a paltry 17 billion annually. We spend almost that much of corn subsidies. Your defense budget is 700 billion.

Dont blame NASA because your democracy is broken and prefers to invest its money on war, defense, subsidies, and science last. Its amazing what NASA is doing with such small amounts of money.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (1)

Ecuador (740021) | more than 3 years ago | (#34489030)

I think GP's mention of "budget" means he was not blaming NASA itself.
But indeed, much less than 10% off of the military budget would get NASA back to the manned space exploration track.

Re:NASA is becoming sad... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34489228)

You guys are behind the curb, we've been picking this story apart since it came out at DIYbio's Google group: http://groups.google.com/group/diybio/browse_thread/thread/4a8a6c1b2dddc253

Of course it's under fire (0, Flamebait)

Pojut (1027544) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485694)

If a scientist other than themselves didn't make the discovery, it's obvious the other guy's methods are flawed!

Scientists can be such whiny, arrogant assholes...whatever happened to science being done for science, rather than recognition?

Re:Of course it's under fire (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34485724)

So any scientist that is critical of any work other than their own should be disregarded? To hell with peer review, say I! Just out of curiosity, by whom was this latest work out of NASA peer reviewed by? Any noted microbiologists who were not involved in the study? Actually, disregard that question because based on your standard you yourself have no right to be critical of the opinion of those who are critical of this study since you're not involved in their formulation of same.

Re:Of course it's under fire (2, Insightful)

Pojut (1027544) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485738)

If you read what the detractors are saying, it sounds like they're whining. This happens with every single major scientific discovery.

Every. Single. One.

Could they be right? Of course they could be right. It wouldn't change the fact that they sound like five-year-olds.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

NevarMore (248971) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485860)

Could they be right? Of course they could be right. It wouldn't change the fact that they sound like five-year-olds.

By the time its dumbed down from the initial scientific review, through the journal, to the PR dept, through the wire service, to the media outlet yes it does.

Where can I go for science news thats not quite as intense as the journals themselves, but more in depth than the normal news outlets? Something that explains whats going on without having to create controversy to justify airtime but recognizes I have a Bachelors and a job and not a PhD?

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

Missing.Matter (1845576) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486112)

I'm not sure about every discipline, but some publications by IEEE are intended specifically for professional engineers who want to keep up with their field but don't require the rigor of a journal publication.

I might also suggest conference proceedings for a prominent conference in your field. Conference papers are usually shorter and less in depth than a journal paper, but still offer a good overview of the research.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

NevarMore (248971) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486334)

Thats just it. I keep up on my field just fine. I want to be informed about things outside my field.

My big concern is that I'll hear a story from a generally decent source about something related to my field or to my hobby and they'll get something wrong. Maybe not egregiously incorrect, but just not quite right. That scares me because it makes me wonder what else they're getting not-quite-right when reporting on a field I'm not heavily involved in.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

Pojut (1027544) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486524)

Where can I go for science news thats not quite as intense as the journals themselves, but more in depth than the normal news outlets? Something that explains whats going on without having to create controversy to justify airtime but recognizes I have a Bachelors and a job and not a PhD?

I've always been rather partial to Science Daily [sciencedaily.com]. I find it invaluable for keeping up with the latest advancements and discoveries, presented in a way that is understandable yet not insulting to your intelligence.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

mcvos (645701) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486540)

I haven't read TFA, but I've read other criticisms of the NASA research, and they said that the microbes had plenty of access to phosphor. And if that's the case, then NASA's assumption that arsenic replaced phosphor in the DNA gets really tenuous.

In fact, I had that very same suspicion when I first read about it. Instead of proving that the DNA contained arsenic instead of phosphor, it really sounded like they just assumed it, because there was so much arsenic and so little phosphor in the environment. Well, sorry, but an assumption that something might be true is just nowhere near as groundbreaking as proof that it really is.

I really hope they do manage to prove that DNA can be based on different elements, but for now I agree with the critics that they haven't done that yet.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

GooberToo (74388) | more than 3 years ago | (#34489216)

What's most funny about this is, IMO, is that their criticism isn't peer reviewed and they likely haven't attempted to recreate NASA's experiments, which likely means they are even less knowledgeable, less in a position to comment, and likely extremely hypocritical of the situation.

They may very well be right, especially given how political NASA is these days, but it doesn't change the fact that those throwing stones likely have no cause to do so; glass houses being what they are and all...

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

GooberToo (74388) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487194)

Peer review is good. But lets not forget that more and more scientists and physicists are openly complaining of how broken things are in science. These days, all too often, those with the most political clout win in every sense of the word. Meaning, they tend to censor others and in turn receive additional funding. Which ultimately means, most of the whining isn't whining for whining's sake - its for hard cash, more political muscle, and additional prestige.

Its actually fairly easy to argue that better science was done a hundred years ago than is frequently done today.

Re:Of course it's under fire (3, Insightful)

allcar (1111567) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485848)

That's complete bullshit. This is how science is (and should) be conducted. It's called peer review and it is one of the most important safeguards of the scientific method. Without thorough and ruthless peer review, people are free to simply make outrageous claims and expect to be believed. That's how religion works.

Re:Of course it's under fire (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34486232)

It's called reading comprehension and you should spend some time working on it before you spend time working on your next post. In no way did the post you replied to imply that science should be conducted without peer review. Go ahead, read it a few times and see if you can figure it out.

Pojut put it nicely...

Could they be right? Of course they could be right. It wouldn't change the fact that they sound like five-year-olds.

Also, the comments themselves make it clear that none of them actually did conduct any kind of scientific review.

This is how science is (and should) be conducted.

So scientists should just be making public statements hoping that someone else proves them right so that later on they can say, "see I told you so!" That pretty much contradicts your whole peer review argument. Peer opinion is not peer review.

Re:Of course it's under fire (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34486284)

and global warming "research". Oh, I guess that counts as a religion.

Re:Of course it's under fire (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34486400)

Without "thorough and ruthless peer review" you can actually develop your ideas to their full fruition and then show all those "peer" bastards how right you are. If you publish too soon, all you get is a shitload of assholes that denounce your work yet secretly work on the same thing just to proclaim it's their own. They say shit like, "I thought of that years ago, but my model is much better, notice how I am so much smarter than anyone else. Notice how I stole the idea and ran with it because I was able to work the press in such a way that it looks like it was my idea all along. In fact he just copied and was following my idea to an erroneous outcome." Tesla and many others knew this, too late unfortunately. Peer review in the end creates monopolies of ideas which languish in obscurity for hundreds of years. A true scientist is independently wealthy and doesn't need affirmation from assholes. A true scientist doesn't have to beg for money by publishing ideas too soon. The end result of publishing ideas too soon is languishing in someone else's stolen glory. What happens to a scientist with truly revolutionary ideas? People tell him, "Publish papers, show us what you know! You may get a grant for further research!" A research grant is merely someone telling you that you are now bought and paid for. Your ideas are now theirs. Sure they will give an office, a good salary, but you are still property to them. Your ideas are now theirs. You are now a "scientist"(slave to the machine)!

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

cobrausn (1915176) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488348)

Even religions have to contend with philosophers. Science without peer review is worse than that.

Re:Of course it's under fire (5, Insightful)

Colonel Sponsz (768423) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485884)

If a scientist other than themselves didn't make the discovery, it's obvious the other guy's methods are flawed!

Scientists can be such whiny, arrogant assholes...whatever happened to science being done for science, rather than recognition?

You do realize that criticizing research is a crucial part of the scientific method, right? Letting claims go unchallenged is the domain of religion, not science.
People are ripping apart this paper because it makes grand claims based on a potentially flawed methodology. If the results can be replicated with those flaws fixed, then the NASA team's research recieves further validation. If not, hey, I guess they jumped the gun. Either way, you have to identify the potential flaws, which is what people are doing here.

Also, to once again quote Rosie Redfield [blogspot.com]:

There's a difference between controls done to genuinely test your hypothesis and those done when you just want to show that your hypothesis is true.

Yes, but we expect BETTER of our betters (1)

SmallFurryCreature (593017) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486526)

You are correct, critizing other peoples work is part of the scientific process since it was invented. Just that the public expects our best and brightest to use better debating skills then:

Scientist A: You suck.

Scientist B: No, you suck.

Scientist A: No, you suck.

Scientist B: No, you suck.

etc

Don't know why the general population expects this. It essentially how we all debate. Only diplomats do it better since they know the secret of diplomacy is to tell the other to go to hell in such a way that he looks forward to the journey.

Re:Yes, but we expect BETTER of our betters (4, Insightful)

the phantom (107624) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486662)

Except that your depiction of the debate is incorrect. In reality, it looks more like this:

Wolfe-Simon et al.: We have made an extraordinary claim!
Redfield et al.: Your methods appear to be flawed.

And that is as far as we have gotten. In other words, the process is working.

Re:Of course it's under fire (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34485940)

I would say being Human happened.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

CraftyJack (1031736) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486106)

This will play out in the journals, not the pages of Slate. Either the method is sound, or it isn't. Either the findings can be duplicated, or they can't. It may take (gasp) at least a few months to see which it is.

Scientists can be such whiny, arrogant assholes...whatever happened to science being done for science, rather than recognition?

Scientists are not saints. Science involves a lot of non-science: finding funding, managing teams, etc. and some people are into outmaneuvering others. As in any other profession, some percentage of scientists are the kind of whiny, arrogant assholes that would attempt to embarrass their colleagues in a mass-market publication rather than put the critique where it belongs: The letters section of Science.

Re:Of course it's under fire (4, Interesting)

the gnat (153162) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487270)

As in any other profession, some percentage of scientists are the kind of whiny, arrogant assholes that would attempt to embarrass their colleagues in a mass-market publication rather than put the critique where it belongs: The letters section of Science.

First of all, the article in Slate was written by a science journalist (Carl Zimmer), not a professional research scientist. (Not to bash Zimmer, I think he's a good writer, but he has no personal motivation to sling mud here.)

Secondly, if you'll think way back to. . . last week, there was a breathless NASA announcement of an imminent press conference about a game-changing discovery, which received widespread coverage in mass-market publications. We call this "science by press release". At least they actually had a paper, unlike the cold fusion debacle, but they're still guilty of shameless self-promotion.

Lastly, most of the real debate is happening on blogs, and probably a lot of internal email chatter that we aren't aware of. I don't see anything wrong with this, for quite a few reasons. One is that it's simply an electronic, real-time version of what used to happen only at conferences and faculty meetings; people say far more savage things about each other offline. We could wait around for formal responses to get published, but there's a great deal of scientific value in this real-time analysis and dissection of flaws. I'm learning a lot, and I think we'll arrive at a conclusive answer much faster than if we had to read through several months of stilted exchanges in Science.

The editors of major journals are often reluctant to air controversies about the papers they publish. There was a case several years ago where several scientists wrote a letter to a journal pointing out possible evidence of fabricated data in a paper; the journal made them water down the letter, and allowed the author of the original article to get away with a half-assed, evasive reply. What the editors should have done instead was demand raw data and a reasonable explanation, and thoroughly investigated the paper, but they seemed content to let the matter slide. So, what we ended up with was mob justice, and the accused scientist's reputation was quickly destroyed on mailing lists and at meetings. It turned out that he was a serial fabricator, and he may face federal charges for defrauding the NIH.

That's a much more serious example than this one - there's no evidence that the NASA researchers did anything unethical, but there are some serious holes in the paper, and in general the evidence does not meet the standards one would hope for one of the pre-eminent scientific journals. I really hope that there's some truth in their claims, because it would be a fascinating organism to study, but the paper shouldn't have made it past peer review in this state.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

chemicaldave (1776600) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486202)

...whatever happened to science being done for science, rather than recognition?

This is science. Discoveries are meant to be criticized for their flaws. Now people can try to repeat the experiment while trying to eliminate the previous variables.

Did you bother to RTFA? There are serious flaws in their method. The wrong thing to do would be to blindly defend the original paper or dismiss it completely.

Arsenic dependent bacteria are common. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34486238)

Arsenic dependent bacteria can thrive in the human disgestive tract. Just check the gut of anybody with heavy metal poisoning - like half the population of Bangladesh. You don't need to go to Alpha Centauri to find them.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

deseipel (1385271) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486538)

what happened? Easy. Sales got ahold of it.

Re:Of course it's under fire (2)

hsthompson69 (1674722) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487998)

Mod parent up - this is the most succinct and accurate analysis of the situation so far. We wouldn't be steamed at all if there wasn't some big marketing build-up to some "groundbreaking" discovery with hints of extraterrestrials. NASA was looking for a PR bump to get congresscritters into the mood to fund them more (or at least cut them less), and they took a 3rd rate paper, with 2nd rate review, and tried to make it into a 1st rate media event.

Re:Of course it's under fire (1)

Nikker (749551) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488178)

The beautiful thing about science is that the person who first made the assertion gets recognition. If someone wants to piss on his corn flakes and discredit his findings saying the sample is contaminated then eventually if/when they do come to a conclusion who gets the credit? The guy who first said there was life based on arsenic that's who. In reality if they really are going to continue on like this citing contamination the best way maybe to test it while it is still in it's original habitat (Mono lake) I.e bring the testing equipment to it. Then again how about if the equipment it's self gets contaminated... This could be a long night.

Papers and Questions (4, Interesting)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485702)

I managed to find a (probably illegal) copy of this paper at pdfcast [pdfcast.org] and also the supplemental figures [sciencemag.org]. I must emphasize that I have absolutely no experience in professional biology let alone microbiology let alone geobiology. So the bulk of the refutation in the blog posting seems to focus on some procedures that the team took while the paper contains several different correlations supporting the hypothesis that arsenic is a major component in the microbe's DNA. So, for example:

Initially, we measured traces of As by ICP-MS analysis of extracted nucleic acid and protein/metabolite fractions from +As/-P grown cells (11) (table S1). We then used high-resolution secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) to positively identify As in extracted, gel purified genomic DNA (Fig. 2A). These data showed that DNA from +As/-P cells had elevated As and low P relative to DNA from the -As/+P cells.

So my question is basically what does it matter what they grew or washed the bacteria with when, in one of the many investigations, they found that gel purified genomic DNA had elevated levels of arsenic in them? Unless I'm misunderstanding what 'gel purified genomic DNA' means, I would assume that there's still several pieces of data in these experiments that point toward an organism that uses arsenic in place of phosphorous -- even if only somehow partially. Would this sort of spectrometry reveal any arsenic at all in my gel purified genomic DNA?

Re:Papers and Questions (4, Informative)

Colonel Sponsz (768423) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485752)

So my question is basically what does it matter what they grew or washed the bacteria with when, in one of the many investigations, they found that gel purified genomic DNA had elevated levels of arsenic in them? Unless I'm misunderstanding what 'gel purified genomic DNA' means, I would assume that there's still several pieces of data in these experiments that point toward an organism that uses arsenic in place of phosphorous -- even if only somehow partially. Would this sort of spectrometry reveal any arsenic at all in my gel purified genomic DNA?

From Rosie Redfield's critique [blogspot.com]:

Could 400 atoms of arsenate per genome be due to carryover of the arsenate in the phenol-chloroform supernatant rather than to covalent incorporation of As in DNA? The Methods describes a standard ethanol precipitation with no washing (and no column purification which would have included washing), so I think some arsenate could easily have been carried over with the DNA, especially if it is not very soluble in 70% ethanol. Would this arsenate have left the DNA during the gel purification? Maybe not - the methods don't say that the DNA was purified away from the agarose gel matrix before being analyzed. This step is certainly standard, but if it was omitted then any contaminating arsenic might have been carried over into the elemental analysis.

Re:Papers and Questions (4, Insightful)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486152)

From your own quote:

Would this arsenate have left the DNA during the gel purification? Maybe not - the methods don't say that the DNA was purified away from the agarose gel matrix before being analyzed. This step is certainly standard, but if it was omitted then any contaminating arsenic might have been carried over into the elemental analysis.

Seriously? Her criticisms rely on the assumption that they skipped a 'standard step' and didn't delve into it in their paper? Who's being the presumptuous one now?

I think it's pretty common for field to omit standard procedure in their papers lest they become too long and verbose. Hopefully NASA and the team get a chance to respond to these comments although it's looking like a landslide right now.

You know that there are going to be a ton of researchers that are going to want to reproduce these tests so it's only a matter of time.

I did enjoy that blog post though:

The authors never calculated whether the amount of growth they saw in the arsenate-only medium (2-3 x 10^7 cfu/ml) could be supported by the phosphate in this medium (or maybe they did but they didn't like the result).

At times that blog reads more like politics than science. Yeah, it's an extraordinary claim, I guess we should just get used to this sort of reaction whenever something game changing is claimed.

Re:Papers and Questions (1)

the phantom (107624) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486576)

Yeah, it's an extraordinary claim, I guess we should just get used to this sort of reaction whenever something game changing is claimed.

The process has always worked this way. The only difference is that we now have the television, radio, email, and other means of near-instantaneous communication, which allows the drama to play out in public, rather than in academic journals.

Re:Papers and Questions (1)

Grizzley9 (1407005) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486750)

Seriously? Her criticisms rely on the assumption that they skipped a 'standard step' and didn't delve into it in their paper? Who's being the presumptuous one now?

That stood out to me as well. We used to call that the ice beast. ICEBST (It can easily be shown that...) to skip over the standard steps in math proofs.
Though this is science and given the claims it needs to be able to stand up to this kind of scrutiny.

Re:Papers and Questions (2)

robbyjo (315601) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485824)

Actually, an easy fix would be getting the sample from the said lake OR from the scientists themselves, and then redo the experiment to see whether they can reproduce the result. Why whining, right?

Re:Papers and Questions (3, Interesting)

vlm (69642) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486806)

then redo the experiment to see whether they can reproduce the result.

See:

So the bulk of the refutation in the blog posting seems to focus on some procedures

"I keep doing the wrong thing, and getting the wrong result, WTF?"

Very much like the tired old meme that won't die of aluminum found in the brains of Alzheimers patients. Every time they sliced specimens in an aluminum microtome, they detected aluminum in the specimens.

Re:Papers and Questions (1)

robbyjo (315601) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488740)

Why can't these scientists just take the samples and redo the experiments *the right way* (and defend it) to see whether it is indeed a methodological error? If it is a methodological error, the result will go away. Why whining?

Re:Papers and Questions (1)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487664)

It's kind of odd that you had to dig up such an offhand copy of that paper. Usually NASA's scientific papers are freely available through their website, being a publicly funded organization and all that. I wonder if you could get a copy of the paper by e-mailing NASA's astrobiology department.

Re:Papers and Questions (1)

jank1887 (815982) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488656)

It should be, if the authors are all US Federal Government employees, and not contractors. Works of the US government are not subject to copyright in the United States. That said, Science's particular reproduction of a report on government work may be covered by certain aspects of copyright. it's a bit tricky. But yes, you should be able to get a copy of the the body of the report with a proper request.

They said they used radioactive tracers... (4, Interesting)

Rooked_One (591287) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485706)

... which are very distinguishable down to the DNA level - if of course of you have that kind of microscope - which NASA does...

Is this news ? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34485710)

Any major or minor scientific discovery has to be subject to scrutiny in order for it to be proven. If it folds at the first issue or claimed to be above scrutiny it would be called a religion.

They need to generate publicity. (2)

olsmeister (1488789) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485742)

It's a requirement for getting more funding and a bigger budget. With the current emphasis on cutting costs and everyone's budget under the microscope, they are trying to generate as much interest as possible in their work.

Re:They need to generate publicity. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34489356)

NASA has recently been criticized for spending billions after billions without obtaining any real new scientific data and this discovery does come at an odd time in light of those criticisms.

Re:They need to generate publicity. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34489522)

Imagining a NASA PR person saying in a closed door meeting, "What do we need to stave off all these criticisms of expenditures and scientific viabilities, while also insuring adequate future funding? ... What.. if.. we were the first... to discover.... ''ALIEN Life''? Eh?.. Are you with me here?..OK, Let's get started!!" >:-D

Not true. Europa FTW. (4, Insightful)

tetrahedrassface (675645) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485754)

The paper made it through peer review. It was published by Nature, and while the peer review process and closed nature of Nature Publishing may not be perfect the paper was in fact reviewed. However NASA is in go-mode, and they desperately want to find life out there. Maybe when they really get serious about finding life they will send a probe down to Europa and sniff around. No telling what they will find.

Also, arguments in the scientific community are nothing new, and a lot controversy occurs because somebodies research infringes on someone else's predetermined view of things. We still don't know about dark matter very well, or even it exists, we still don't know so many things about almost everything! Text books continue to be updated every year, and the current consensus on big things like String Theory, or whatever are laid down to us as authoritative law, yet rescinded just as quickly when we learn something new. This reminds me of the global warming debate a little bit.

Scientists sure like to argue a lot. :)

Re:Not true. Europa FTW. (4, Interesting)

Sockatume (732728) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485838)

Also, arguments in the scientific community are nothing new, and a lot controversy occurs because somebodies research infringes on someone else's predetermined view of things.

It's telling in this case that many of the sceptical responses are coming from the researchers who pioneered arsenic-based biochemistry.

Re:Not true. Europa FTW. (1)

LateArthurDent (1403947) | more than 3 years ago | (#34489742)

Also, arguments in the scientific community are nothing new, and a lot controversy occurs because somebodies research infringes on someone else's predetermined view of things.

It's telling in this case that many of the sceptical responses are coming from the researchers who pioneered arsenic-based biochemistry.

I'm not sure what you implying. The people who have done work in the field are the people most likely to read and understand the paper. They're the most qualified to give any response at all.

I'm an EE, and I constantly encounter papers I don't fully understand in electrical engineering. There are tons of papers in electrical engineering coming out that I never even bother to read. However, when the papers are in my area of research, I can grasp the details quickly and sometimes recognize mistakes (because I've made them myself in the past). It's not jealousy that they "got there first", it's not that I have a bias to my own methods, it's simply experience.

Re:Not true. Europa FTW. (0, Troll)

harvey the nerd (582806) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486304)

NASA is an expensive suckhole doing poor, often politized, science. I was raised on NASA hoorah decades. It's totally depleted now. Better to chop all the deadwood out and start over. America's future in space depends on it. If we don't somebody else, leaner and less corrupt, will.

Re:Not true. Europa FTW. (1)

dkleinsc (563838) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486350)

Maybe when they really get serious about finding life they will send a probe down to Europa and sniff around.

The NASA guys probably got the message "All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there."

Re:Not true. Europa FTW. (1)

LauraScudder (670475) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487378)

Uh, you do realize that it was published in Science. I can tell that you've really done your due diligence on this subject before proffering your opinion. Might even have skimmed TFA.

Re:Not true. Europa FTW. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34488212)

FYI, published by Science, not Nature.

Arsenic Bacteria: Does The Evidence Hold Up? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34485776)

Derek Lowe provides an interesting analysis of the NASA paper: http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2010/12/07/arsenic_bacteria_does_the_evidence_hold_up.php

NASA needs to launch more Space missions (1)

digitaldc (879047) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485786)

Let's go to one of Saturn's or Mars' moons and test the soil there, why don't we NASA?

The Scientific (Publication) Process (3, Insightful)

egyptiankarim (765774) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485800)

Wait, wait, wait. The whole point of publication is to open up your results so that other scientists can poke holes in it and the science can be redone and improved upon. Isn't it kind of a bogus statement say something like "this paper shouldn't have been published"? And with outrage, no less. Could the science really have been that bad and still be approved for publication to begin with? It must have been subject to at least a bit of peer review prior to its release. How come no one was outraged about the guy who reinvented integration (http://science.slashdot.org/story/10/12/06/0416250/Medical-Researcher-Rediscovers-Integration)?!

Re:The Scientific (Publication) Process (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34485912)

It's more like this shouldn't have been published in Science because of the standard of evidence doesn't match the extraordinary claims. More to do with reputation and expectation of standards. Gold-standard reviewed journals just seem like a distant memory now.

Re:The Scientific (Publication) Process (5, Informative)

emt377 (610337) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486236)

Wait, wait, wait. The whole point of publication is to open up your results so that other scientists can poke holes in it and the science can be redone and improved upon. Isn't it kind of a bogus statement say something like "this paper shouldn't have been published"? And with outrage, no less. Could the science really have been that bad and still be approved for publication to begin with? It must have been subject to at least a bit of peer review prior to its release. How come no one was outraged about the guy who reinvented integration (http://science.slashdot.org/story/10/12/06/0416250/Medical-Researcher-Rediscovers-Integration)?!

The paper spurs justified criticism of methodology; that's perfectly reasonable. What ruffles people's feathers is using the resources of NASA to peddle their results in highly hyped press conferences. The lesson here is that if you're going to do that your research better be airtight. And that would include correlating the research by others using different methods. What they have in no way correlates with the presentation, which makes them look like used car salesmen.

Spaceship factories (1)

Twinbee (767046) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485818)

I think a better purpose for NASA would be to concentrate on making factories which produce spaceship factories.

What ever did happen to the Virgin funded project to get the (rich only for now) public into space?

Re:Spaceship factories (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34488378)

What ever did happen to the Virgin funded project to get the (rich only for now) public into space?

Peak Oil

strange brew that's also good for you (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34485910)

That would be home made kombucha.

But NASA would never overhype something (2)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485934)

I refuse to believe that NASA would have a press conference for mere PR and self-promotional purposes. That's *completely* out of character.

Spacebank! (1)

Silpher (1379267) | more than 3 years ago | (#34485938)

NASAs ultimate solution is offcourse to become the first space bank! You'll be bailed out whenever you need it, no need to lie to the public nobody does that!

This is how science works (4, Insightful)

edremy (36408) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486052)

I'm teaching a course in the scientific method and controversial theories this semester, and this is such a perfect example of how science is *supposed* to work. This isn't cold fusion- the original paper passed peer review and was published in Science, not exactly a bottom-feeder journal. NASA is making the organism itself available to anyone who wants it- run your own tests and see if the science stands up.

If it does- awesome. Really neat microbiology

If it doesn't- well an awful lot of published papers turn out to wrong. Acknowledge the mistake and move on.

I see comments about how peer review failed. I'm not a microbiologist so I can't judge if there were any really obvious errors, but peer review isn't supposed to verify claims in papers- it's a sanity check to make sure that nothing blatantly wrong gets through. Given that Science is the 2nd highest impact journal out there I'm sure they have competent peer reviewers available. Is it possible they screwed up? Sure, but it's not a catastrophe: we're seeing science self-correct in exactly the way it's supposed to.

Re:This is how science works (1)

ishobo (160209) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487908)

I'm teaching a course in the scientific method and controversial theories this semester, and this is such a perfect example of how science is *supposed* to work. This isn't cold fusion...

Cold fusion was peer reviewed too.

Re:This is how science works (2)

cranky_chemist (1592441) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488628)

Cold fusion was peer reviewed too.

Wrong. Fleischmann and Pons made their initial announcement at a press conference, essentially stepping outside the normal channels of scientific communication. This contributed significantly to the level of criticism and derision they received as more and more researchers tried (unsuccessfully) to reproduce their results.

Arsenic eating bacteria are pretty common. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34486078)

They live in the human digestive tract. Just check the gut of anybody with heavy metal poisoning - like half the population on Bangladesh. I don't think that you have to go to Alpha Centauri to find them.

"May Be"? (1)

Danathar (267989) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486214)

"finding may be based on something a simple as poor sample washing to remove phosphate contamination."

Excuse me? "may be". Well lots of things "may be" but if you can't prove that it was you should keep your mouth shut until you can prove that it "is" instead of "may be"

Re:"May Be"? (2)

the phantom (107624) | more than 3 years ago | (#34486394)

There is no "is" in science. Everything is in terms of "maybes." This reflects the epistemological position that nothing in science is certain, but that things can be more or less likely based upon the preponderance of evidence. In this case, the samples may not have been properly washed (the original paper leaves out those details), and if the samples were not properly washed, there is an obvious source of contamination. The correct response is not to attacked Dr. Redfield for disagreeing with the paper, but for Wolfe-Simon et al. to clarify how the experiment was run, and to demonstrate that Dr. Redfield's critique is invalid.

(plus one Inform4tive) (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34486316)

We''l be able to Deliver. Some of Fact there won't for the state of give BSD credit of the above Usenet is roughly since then. More

NASA Fail? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34487326)

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" - Carl Sagan

can't happen, but.... (2)

milkmage (795746) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487444)

microbes (hell, even complex multi cellular organisms) THRIVE under incredibly hostile conditions right here on this planet. but it's "impossible" organisms eat arsenic because it's "poison"

keep in mind all this shit happens at the bottom of the ocean where the pressure is thousands of PSI.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrothermal_vent [wikipedia.org] .....
Although life is very sparse at these depths, black smokers are the center of entire ecosystems. Sunlight is nonexistent, so many organisms — such as archaea and extremophiles — convert the heat, methane, and sulfur compounds provided by black smokers into energy through a process called chemosynthesis. .....
A species of phototrophic bacterium has been found living near a black smoker off the coast of Mexico at a depth of 2,500 m (8,200 ft). No sunlight penetrates that far into the waters. Instead, the bacteria, part of the Chlorobiaceae family, use the faint glow from the black smoker for photosynthesis. This is the first organism discovered in nature to exclusively use a light other than sunlight for photosynthesis. .....
Other examples of the unique fauna who inhabit this ecosystem are scaly-foot gastropod Crysomallon squamiferum, a species of snail with a foot reinforced by scales made of iron and organic materials, and the Pompeii Worm Alvinella pompejana, which is capable of withstanding temperatures up to 80C (176F).

can you imagine the fish tank you'd need to sustain this life on the surface!? the surface of Mars has to be (marginally) more hospitable than this but "Compared to the surrounding sea floor, however, hydrothermal vent zones have a density of organisms 10,000 to 100,000 times greater."

Re:can't happen, but.... (2)

the phantom (107624) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487604)

microbes (hell, even complex multi cellular organisms) THRIVE under incredibly hostile conditions right here on this planet. but it's "impossible" organisms eat arsenic because it's "poison"

You are missing the point. No one has said that life in an arsenic-rich environment is impossible. No one said that life could not exist without phosphorus. What the critics are saying is that the paper published in Science does not adequately demonstrate that life the bacteria under study can use arsenic instead of phosphorus (which was the conclusion of the original paper). There are at least two problems with the procedure, as published in Science.

Poor summary (1)

LauraScudder (670475) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487466)

the finding may be based on something as simple as poor sample washing to remove phosphate contamination.

This conflates two problems mentioned in the article: possible poor washing of arsenic off the DNA, since it apparently likes to glom onto things, and trace amounts of phosphorus in the salts they fed the bacteria that were trying to starve of phosphorus.

More to this discussion... (1)

rune.w (720113) | more than 3 years ago | (#34487832)

...in this great blog [corante.com]. Also check out the rest of the posts, if you're a chemist you'll definitely will enjoy the "stuff I won't work with" series.

Where's Feynman when you need him (1)

paiute (550198) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488056)

"go fever"? So this arsenic-metabolising bug is the O-ring of biology?

why criticisms are valid (1)

cinnamon colbert (732724) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488454)

As a professional (PhD molecular biology) scientist, I think the starting point is this:
If true, this is the biggest discovery in biology since watson crick, because it really redefines fundamentals of chemistry for life.
This is different from life growing under what seems to us harsh conditions (very acid [pH 1], high temp(boiling water)) etc
Replacing phosphorus with Arsenic is really fundamental, because phosphorus is found in so many different molecules in the cell: in DNA, RNA, tRNA, ATP, phospho lipids, glycolytic intermediates, building blocks for isoprenoid compounds, etc etc; thus you really have to change a lot of very very basic things As the saying goes, extra ordinary claims require extra ordinary evidence.

mod do@wN (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34488498)

and dIstract1on

Through the Wormhole (1)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | more than 3 years ago | (#34488564)

Coincidentally, there was an episode on a few days ago discussing the possibility of arsenic-based bacteria. I'm guessing that the episode wasn't churned out in 2 days, so there's probably a decent amount of background to this research.

No it's not (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 3 years ago | (#34489786)

that facr is most people in the blogosphere ahve no idea how press release are done, not do they know how information on science is released.

The fact is most people in the blogosphere have no idea how press releases are done, not do they know how information on science is released.

If it was something big, NASA wouldn't have announced they where going to do it. This applies to ANY large entity.
If it was about getting a signal from another life form, they would have confirmed their data, and then just made the announcement. News that big will spread quick on its own.

If it's a small announcement, you let people know you are making the announcement to get ears and a solid reference point to help stop misinterpretation of the complex information.

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