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Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Agency That Cried “Awesome!”

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” – Anonymous ancient proverb

In the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone, Greek resistance fighters and Allied demolition experts set out to destroy a nest of large cannons so that a rescue convoy can go through the straits the guns overlook.  A young Greek who’s part of the mission goes after a group of Germans gunslinger-style, jeopardizing the venture.  The Germans cut him to ribbons.  When the mission members meet at their rendezvous point, his sister María (Iríni Pappás) says to his partner Andréas (Anthony Quinn, obligatory at that time whenever swarthy ethnics were required): “Tell me what happened.”  Andréas replies: “He forgot why we came.”

Last week, NASA administrators forgot why we came.  They forgot the agency’s mission, they forgot science, they forgot their responsibility to their own people and to the public.  Instead, they apparently decided that all publicity is good, as long as they don’t misspell your name.

Ever since I became fully conscious, I’ve dreamed of humanity exploring the stars.  These dreams were part of the reason I left my culture, my country, my family and came over here, determined to do research.  Every launch made my heart leap.  I wept when I saw the images sent by the Voyagers, Sojourner negotiating Martian rocks.  I kept thinking that perhaps in my lifetime we might find an unambiguous independent life sample.  Then, at long last, astrobiology would lift off and whole new scientific domains would unfurl and soar with it.

Instead of that, last week we got bacterial isolate GFAJ-1.  We got an agency which appears so desperate that it shoved experiments with inadequate controls into a high profile journal and then shouted from the rooftops that its researchers had discovered a new form of life (de facto false, even if the results of the increasingly beleaguered Science paper stand).

This is not the first or only time NASA administrators have been callously cavalier.  Yet even though the latest debacle didn’t claim lives like the Challenger incident did, it was just as damaging in every other way.  And whereas the Challenger disaster was partly instigated by pressure from the White House (Reagan needed an exclamation point for his State of the Union address), this time the hole in NASA’s credibility is entirely self-inflicted.  Something went wrong in the process, and all the gatekeeping functions failed disastrously.

Let’s investigate a major claim in the Science paper: that GFAJ-1 bacteria incorporate arsenic in their DNA, making them novel, unique, a paradigm shift.  Others have discussed the instability of the arsenate intermediates and of any resulting backbone.  Three more points are crucial:

1.  This uniqueness (not yet proved) has come about by non-stop selection pressure in the laboratory, not by intrinsic biochemistry: the parent bacterium in its normal environment uses garden-variety pathways and reverts to them as soon as the pressure is lifted.  This makes the “novel life” claim patently incorrect and the isolate no more exotic than the various metallophores and metallovores that many groups in that domain (Penny Boston, Ken Nealson) have been studying for decades.

2.  The arsenic-for-phosphorus substitution in the DNA is circumstantial at best.  The paper contained no sequencing, no autoradiography, no cesium chloride density gradients.  These are low-tech routine methods that nevertheless would give far more direct support to the authors’ claims.  Density gradients are what Meselson and Stahl used in 1958 to demonstrate that DNA replication was semi-conservative.  Instead, Wolfe-Simon et al. used highly complex techniques that gave inconclusive answers.

The reagents for the methods I just listed would cost less than $1,000 (total, not each). A round of sequencing costs $10 – the price of a Starbucks latte. In a subsequent interview, Oremland (the paper’s senior author) said that they did not have enough money to do more experiments. This is like saying that you hired the Good Year blimp to take you downtown but didn’t have enough money for a taxi back home.

3.  Even if some of the bacteria incorporate arsenic in their DNA, it means nothing if they cannot propagate.  Essentially, they can linger as poison-filled zombies that will nonetheless register as “alive” through such tests as culture turbidity and even sluggish metabolism.

NASA spokespeople, as well as Wolfe-Simon and Oremland, have stated that the only legitimate and acceptable critiques are those that will appear in peer-reviewed venues – and that others are welcome to do experiments to confirm or disprove their findings.

The former statement is remarkably arrogant and hypocritical, given the NASA publicity hyperdrive around the paper: embargoes, synchronized watches, melodramatic hints of “new life”, of a discovery with “major impact on astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life”.  This is called leading with your chin.  And if you live by PR, you cannot act shocked and dismayed when you die by PR.

As for duplicating the group’s experiments, the burden of proof lies with the original researchers. This burden increases if their claims are extraordinary.  The team that published the paper was being paid to do the work by a grant (or, possibly, by earmarked NASA money, which implies much less competition). For anyone else to confirm or disprove their findings, they will have to carve effort, time and money out of already committed funds — or apply for a grant specifically geared to this, and wait for at least a year (usually more) for the money to be awarded.  It’s essentially having to clean up someone else’s mess on your own time and dime.

Peer review is like democracy: it’s the worst method, except for all others.  It cannot avoid agendas, vendettas, pet theories or hierarchies.  But at least it does attempt judgment by one’s peers.  Given the kernel of this paper, its reviewers should have been gathered from several disciplines.  I count at least four: a microbiologist with expertise in extremophiles, a molecular biologist specializing in nucleic acids, a biochemist studying protein and/or lipid metabolism and a biophysicist versed in crystallography and spectrometry.

Some journals have started to name reviewers; Science does not, and “astrobiology” is a murky domain.  If the scientific community discovers that the reviewers for the GFAJ-1 paper were physicists who write sciency SF and had put on the astrobio hat for amusement and/or convenience, Lake Mono will look mild and hospitable compared to the climate that such news will create.

Because of the way scientific publishing works, a lot of shaky papers appear that never get corrected or retracted.  As a dodge, authors routinely state that “more needs to be done to definitively prove X.”  Even if later findings of other labs completely contradict their conclusions, they can argue that the experiments were correct, if not their interpretation.  Colleagues within each narrow domain know these papers and/or labs – and quietly discount them. But if such results get media attention (which NASA courted for this paper), the damage is irreversible.

People will argue that science is self-correcting.  This is true in the long run – and as long as science is given money to conduct research.  However, the publication of that paper in Science was a very public slap in the face of scientists who take time and effort to test their theories.  NASA’s contempt for the scientific process (and for basic intelligence) during this jaw-dropping spectacle was palpable.  It blatantly endorsed perceived “sexiness” and fast returns at the expense of careful experimentation. This is the equivalent of rewarding the mindset and habits of hedge fund managers who walk away with other people’s lifelong savings.

By disbursing hype, NASA administrators handed ready-made ammunition to the already strong and growing anti-intellectual, anti-scientific groups in US society: to creationists and proponents of (un)intelligent design; to climate change denialists and young-earth biblical fundamentalists; to politicians who have been slashing everything “non-essential” (except, of course, war spending and capital gains income).  It jeopardized the still-struggling discipline of astrobiology.  And it jeopardized the future of a young scientist who is at least enthusiastic about her research even if her critical thinking needs a booster shot – or a more rigorous mentor.

Perhaps NASA’s administrators were under pressure to deliver something, anything to stave off further decrease of already tight funds.  I understand their position – and even more, that of their scientists.  NIH and NSF are in the same tightening vise, and the US has lost several generations of working scientists in the last two decades.  Everyone is looking for brass rings because it’s Winner Take All – and “all” is pennies.  We have become beggars scrambling for coins tossed out of rich people’s carriages, buskers and dancing bears, lobsters in a slowly heating pot.

NASA should not have to resort to circus acts as the price for doing science.  It’s in such circumstances that violence is done to process, to rigor, to integrity.  We are human.  We have mortgages and doctors’ bills and children to send to college, yes.  But we are scientists, first and foremost.  We are – must be – more than court jesters or technicians for the powerful.  If we don’t hold the line, no one else will.

The paper: Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PCW, Anbar AD, Oremland RS (2010) A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258.

My early summation of this paper: Arsenic and Odd Lace

Images: Top, María tries to keep her brother focused on the mission in The Guns of Navarone; middle, the Meselson and Stahl experiment; bottom, Quiros circus, Spain, 2007.

40 Responses to “The Agency That Cried “Awesome!””

  1. My posts have been getting hits from Answers in Genesis!

  2. Athena says:

    I wish I could say I was surprised, Rosie.

  3. Peggy says:

    That’s the pisser about all of this – it plays into the hands of the people who want to claim scientists are liars.

    I notice that the paper was submitted September 1st and accepted November 8 and not published until December 2 – that seems like ample time to have done additional supporting experiments, especially ones that don’t require special equipment or outrageously expensive reagents.

  4. Athena says:

    I agree, Peggy. I cannot quite parse it. Perhaps the whole thing acquired velocity and snowballed out of control.

    The 2 months between submission and acceptance is a standard interval for papers that get no or minor revision requests. Once a manuscript is accepted, you cannot make changes (mindboggling in this case, but a fact). You can add a note at the proof stage, a paragraph’s worth maximum about additional confirmation by other methods from your group or from other groups. If you do experiments in the interim that significantly alter your conclusions, you have to withdraw the paper and start from the beginning.

  5. Asakiyume says:

    Are the authors still claiming it’s an arsenic-based life form? Or are they acknowledging the facts as you’ve described them here?

  6. Athena says:

    The authors and NASA say that additional experiments will completely vindicate their claims. The question is, which claims? That GFAJ-1 has completely substituted phosphorus with arsenic? That it might have arsenic in its DNA? That it might have arsenic in its cytoplasm? That such cells are viable and give rise to progeny?

    Even if they were completely vindicated in terms of science down to their boldest claims (impossible, I think, but let’s assume it for the moment), the paper as it appeared in Science still lacks controls and important experiments. Being accidentally right is not the way to do science.

  7. Asakiyume says:

    It does sound like careless science foolishly showcased by a lot of press :-(

    What headaches….

  8. Caliban says:

    One proposed modification of the peer review system that I like would be that if a paper gets accepted, then the names of the referee(s) would be made public–indeed, that the referee would have to write commentary to be published on why they accepted the paper. Of course, this itself would have problems, such as toadying, but at least it would be out in the open and referees would have to “own” acceptance of those papers.

  9. Athena says:

    That’s a great idea. It would take care of hurt feelings for rejected papers, but make the reviewers responsible for acceptances. Also, writing why they accepted the papers would sharpen their thoughts further.

  10. Scion101 says:

    I know editors that return papers to authors, asking them to find reviewers. They would publish names, but everyone would know then, that the same few people review almost all of many people’s papers. I am sure Athena is amazed at the papers that are occasionally approved, some hardly readable.

    In these days of anti-progressivism, the spoiled generation of scientists we have, makes us appear especially impotent. What we have here is all to often used, as with Global Warming, stating something that is plausible, is actually valid, without any proof.
    I know scientists, that faced with findings in opposition to something they have written or with apriori skepticism, taking it personally, in order to cut the interloper out of the money, and then publishing the same brand of papers for years, all the time knowing they are a partial truth, or even worse, a false representation.

    Thank you Athena, for your excellent work and concern about quality. There is a severe need, I think, for stopping the media’s cartoon=-like response to Science – a headline like “Arsenic eating monster from Outer space emerges from Mono Lakes!”. Too bad you did not do the review, but then, I imagine, they never wanted someone like you to do so. It is a low bar.

  11. Athena says:

    You’re welcome! I believe the data show rather conclusively that global warming is happening, and rather fast at that. I mean, having places like the Maldives disappearing is not hard to observe. Arguing that ice ages happened before we humans existed is irrelevant.

    Regarding the scientific review process, authors are routinely asked to suggest a few reviewers, as well as competitors that they want excluded from seeing the manuscript. The editor isn’t bound to honor their wishes, but usually one reviewer comes from the authors’ list. The rest get chosen from a list of authors who published recently in that particular journal, and whose expertise more or less fits the profile of the paper. If I had done the review, this paper would not have been published — certainly not in its present incarnation.

  12. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kontra, David Dobbs. David Dobbs said: The Agency That Cried “Awesome!” http://bit.ly/hQactr Quite a post, & w this jewel: Peer review like democracy: Best sys we have, but poor […]

  13. Luiz Liske says:

    I share your disappointment with NASA attitude but I think one should also pay attention to the timing of the release. The US government was frantically trying to minimize the damage from WikiLeaks. I don’t think it is paranoia to look at this episode as an attempt to divert the attention of the public and the media.

    Luiz Liske
    São Paulo, Brazil

  14. Athena says:

    I hadn’t thought of that possibility. I don’t know how long the respective agencies were preparing their public responses, so it’s hard to judge this hypothesis.

  15. Tom Bitterwolf says:

    I strongly support the thoughts and concerns expressed in Athena’s blog entry. I’d like to add one additional referee to her proposed team and that would be an inorganic chemist. The idea that arsenic and phosphorus are interchangeable is simplistic at best. The slightly larger size of arsenic makes it possible for arsenic to undergo substitution reactions more readily than phosphorus. As a result, arsenate esters are hydrolytically less stable than those of phosphate. Why does this matter? The backbone chains of DNA and RNA are phosphate esters, while the critical parts of ATP and ADP are polyphosphates. The analogous arsenates simply wouldn’t survive in a water environment. At the molecular level, much less the biological, the claims of this paper simply don’t wash.

    Rather than worrying about referees that didn’t do their jobs, I want the names of the NASA officials who decided to push this outlandish claim to be publicized. A young scientist may be forgiven for letting their imaginations to run ahead of their data, but not senior administrators who must protect their agencies from embarrassment.

    Tom Bitterwolf
    Professor of Chemistry
    University of Idaho

  16. Athena says:

    Tom, I agree. The instability of arsenate intermediates was the first thing that came up in all the debates, from Benner in the press conference itself to Alex Bradley’s critique. I would like to know the names of those involved in all the steps of this process, from review to publicity.

  17. Walden2 says:

    Scientists from Arsenic Bacteria Paper Respond to Criticisms

    by Nancy Atkinson on December 16, 2010

    Backlash from the “arsenic life” paper that was published on December 2, is still ongoing. Some of the criticism has been about the science, while much more criticism has been about the coverage of the news and also how NASA introduced, or “teased” the public with news, using the words “astrobiology” and “extraterrestrial life” in their announcement of an upcoming press conference.

    Today, at the American Geophysical Union conference, one of the team scientists, Ron Oremland discussed the fallout from the news coverage, and I’ll be providing an overview of that shorty. At about the same time, the science team released a statement and some FAQ’s about the science paper. Below is that statement and the information the science team provided.

    Full article here:

    http://www.universetoday.com/81783/scientists-from-arsenic-bacteria-paper-respond-to-criticisms/

  18. Athena says:

    I skimmed the article, but they still sound like they don’t know what they’re doing. Example: “Additionally, DNA extracted in this manner on other samples was also successfully used in further analyses, including PCR, that require highly purified DNA.”

    PCR does not require purified DNA. In fact, one of its great advantages is that you can do it with dirty DNA or complex DNA mixes. Also, if the polymerase amplified the DNA, it’s further proof that it didn’t contain a lot of arsenic. Finally, had they done these experiments when they submitted the paper, they would have said so, adding “Data not shown.” The paper does not contain such a statement.

  19. Walden2 says:

    Arsenic, Astrobiology, NASA, and the Media

    http://nasawatch.com/archives/2010/12/arsenic-astrobi.html

    Nature: “Blogs and online comments can provide valuable feedback on newly published research. Scientists need to adjust their mindsets to embrace and respond to these new forums for debate.”

  20. Athena says:

    It’s really equivalent to discussions in labs, journal clubs and conferences. Except with a larger audience and archivable discussions. Of course, Nature is enjoying Science’s discomfiture. On its side, Science is trying to have it both ways: one of its attached scientist journalists, Elizabeth Pennisi (she interviewed me once about tau), recently interviewed Wolfe-Simon.

  21. Paul Adams says:

    You write very well. You also think very well. The dubious arsenic paper, and its background, illustrate a general problem in contemporary science – the increasing role of money, hype and advertising. Of course, this is true of many other aspects of modern life, but its invasion of science, which should be more immune, is worrying.

  22. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the critique. I agree — science’s greatest power is its adherence to reality.

  23. Dagmar says:

    I’m interested in your perspective on a few things:

    In Pinnisi’s recent interview, FWS claims she already performed density gradient centrifugation. Why do you think it wasn’t included in the paper?

    Do you think FWS is stalling on getting samples of the bugs to other researchers?

    Do you think Science will encourage retraction of the paper if it’s shown that the DNA is composed of P and not As?

    Thanks!

  24. Athena says:

    I saw Wolfe-Simon’s statement about the density gradients. It’s too vague to interpret.

    I don’t know the configuration of the Oremland lab, so I cannot tell how much effort it would take to send out GFAJ-1 samples. I know what I do when I get asked: I dot DNA on a circle of filter paper and send it out by regular mail. It takes ten minutes, of which most are taken up with addressing the envelope. Granted, she may have received many requests — but in her case, she just needs to grow more GFAJ-1 (in contast, I have thousands of constructs and could be asked for any one of them, which I may need to regrow if I don’t have at hand).

    Retractions are usually initiated by the investigators, not the journal, and happen when results cannot be reproduced by the originating lab. In this case, I suspect the likeliest outcome will be what I described in the article: Wolfe-Simon et al will state that the experiments themselves were correct, just not the interpretation — and they’ll submit a second paper to another journal with the next-generation experiments.

  25. Dagmar says:

    Thanks. I agree with your responses except that I know that Science has encouraged retraction in several cases (e.g. Homme Hellinga’s designed enzymes) and I think the As-bacteria story has generated enough interest that they’ll want to make sure the record’s straight. I predict retraction.

  26. Athena says:

    There’s no doubt that you and I will track this thing to its resolution — though it may take a while to get there!

  27. Dagmar says:

    Well the aforementioned Hellinga paper was published in 2004 and the retraction didn’t occur until 2008. In that case the experiments to verify were also very simple but Hellinga wasn’t forthcoming with reagents.

    I’ve never understood why the NIH doesn’t setup a small intramural lab whose sole job is to verify contentious results. It probably wouldn’t apply in this case since the research wasn’t NIH funded but an independent lab could resolve situations like this that seem to pop up all the time and sometimes set fields off on the wrong direction.

    But yes, we’ll be rubbernecking until the end!

  28. Athena says:

    Given the publicity NASA sought and the quality of the science, tracking this paper is more than just curiosity. It’s a civic duty. As for verification labs, that’s a tall order — they would have to be extensive to cover all contingencies. Plus, of course, “reactive” science is not considered sexy (to use the NASA terminology).

  29. Walden2 says:

    Another claim of alien bacteria from a meteorite:

    http://nasawatch.com/archives/2011/03/nasa-msfc-astro.html

  30. Athena says:

    I read up on Richard Hoover. Apparently, he’s been making the same claim for the last decade, using the same meteorite. Not a good sign.

  31. Walden2 says:

    http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/26670/

    How Bacteria Could Generate Radio waves

    The notion that bacteria can transmit radio waves is controversial. But physicists now say they know how it could be done

    kfc 04/25/2011

    Can bacteria generate radio waves?

    On the face of it, this seems an unlikely proposition. Natural sources of radio waves include lightning, stars and pulsars while artificial sources include radar, mobile phones and computers. This is a diverse list. So it’s hard to see what these things might have in common with bacteria that could be responsible for making radio waves.

    But today, Allan Widom at Northeastern University in Boston and a few pals, say they’ve worked out how it could be done.

    They point out that many types of bacterial DNA take the form of circular loops. So they’ve modelled the behaviour of free electrons moving around such a small loop, pointing out that, as quantum objects, the electrons can take certain energy levels.

    Widom and co calculate that the transition frequencies between these energy levels correspond to radio signals broadcast at 0.5, 1 and 1.5 kilohertz. And they point out that exactly this kind of signal has been measured in E Coli bacteria.

    Let’s make one thing clear: this is a controversial area of science. The measurements of bacterial radio waves were published in 2009 by Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2008 for the discovery of HIV. However, Montagnier is a controversial figure and it’s fair to say that his claims are not accepted by most mainstream biologists.

    However, one of the criticisms of the work was that there is no known mechanism by which bacteria can generate radio waves. That criticism may now no longer hold.

    That means Widom and co may be able to kickstart more work in this area. It is well known that bacterial and other types of cells use electromagnetic waves at higher frequencies to communicate as well as to send and store energy. If cells can also generate radio waves, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t exploit this avenue too.

    More science please!

    Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.3113: Electromagnetic Signals from Bacterial DNA

  32. Walden2 says:

    Did Rosie Redfield just refute #arseniclife on her blog?

    Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia has steadfastly raised doubts about the headline-grabbing news about arsenic-based life last November. (If neither arsenic life nor Rosie Redfield ring any bells for you, check out my two pieces for Slate, in December and June.)

    Redfield then did something exceptional: she set out to replicate the initial findings, getting the original bacteria and seeing whether they can build DNA from arsenic when deprived of phosphorus.

    And then she did something quite unique: she started to chronicle her experiences on her blog. It’s a fascinating peek into the lab notebook of a practicing scientist. Today’s post is especially intriguing:

    “First evidence refuting Wolfe-Simon et al.’s results”

    Full article here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2011/08/02/did-rosie-redfield-just-refute-arseniclife-on-her-blog/

  33. Athena says:

    She started working on this as soon as the GFAJ-1 strain became available. It’s not trivial to prepare a lab for arsenic work. If anyone can treat this rigorously and thoroughly, it’s her.

  34. Walden2 says:

    Arsenic and old posts

    From Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for September 30, 2011:

    Last year, with much ballyhoo, NASA held a press conference about a team of biologists claiming that they had found microorganisms that could use arsenic instead of phosphorous as a basis for biological processes.

    However, it didn’t take too long before the work was under serious attack by other biologists. Some were snarky, others more reserved, but the message was clear: not too many professional biologists felt the arsenic claim held up to scrutiny. In fact, some said the research paper was so shoddy it should never have been published.

    This whole event comes to my mind from time to time, and I’ve been meaning to revisit it. I’ll admit I’m a little embarrassed by how I participated in it — I reported it straight, writing up a blog post relaying what I had learned from the press conference and from reading the paper itself. I am not a biologist, so the details of the paper were beyond me. But being a scientist myself I could glean what I needed for a blog post, especially coupled with the comments from the press conference.

    Full article here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/09/30/arsenic-and-old-posts/

  35. Athena says:

    I’m sorry, though not surprised, to hear that Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s prospects look dim. The climate for science in general is bleak, that of NASA biology even more so. However, the authors of that paper overhyped their shaky claims to a frankly scandalous extent — and her stint in Oremland’s lab was meant to be finite. After all, that is why she called the strain GFAJ (=Give Felisa a Job). So to portray her as a wronged rebel hero is disingenuous at best.

  36. Walden2 says:

    Athena said:

    “After all, that is why she called the strain GFAJ (= Give Felisa a Job).”

    Okay, I am actually embarassed for her after seeing that. I guess even scientists are human after all. :^)

    If NASA really wants to make an accomplishment in astrobiology/exobiology/bioastronomy (take your pick), they should refocusing on finding out what the Viking landers really detected with modern equipment and 30+ years hindsight.

    I find it (non) amusing that the Curiosity rover’s mission, which was originally described as going beyond looking for water like the MERs and actually seeking out signs of Martian life past or present, has been scaled back to searching for “just” organic molecules.

    NASA is so afraid of declaring they are looking for alien life in the event of failure, but the whole point is you learn something either way whether we find out Mars was once a habitat for living beings or has always been a desert. But it seems rather unscientific to test a hypothesis and expect only one outcome.

    This seems to be the same attitude for SETI. People are disappointed that it hasn’t detected an alien signal yet (and I admit I am among them), but we have already learned something important by the fact that no ETI is obvious after 50 years of (mostly sporadic) searching. This includes the fact that we need to expand our search area and tools.

  37. Walden2 says:

    ‘Arsenic life’ debate still percolates

    By Alan Boyle

    It’s been one year since researchers shook up the scientific world by claiming they bred bacteria that used arsenic in place of phosphorus, and the controversy is still simmering: The lead researcher and her critics say they’re taking a closer look at the microbe at the center of the “weird life” claims.

    After hitting the highs and the lows of academic acclaim, Felisa Wolfe-Simon has left her original research group and joined up with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California to continue her research into the bacterium known as GFAJ-1, which gets its name from the acronym for “Give Felisa a Job.” (No joke!)

    “There is so much work to do we’re focusing on that and look forward to communicating our efforts in the coming months,” Wolfe-Simon told me in an email this week.

    Meanwhile, Wolfe-Simon’s highest-profile critic, University of British Columbia microbiologist Rosie Redfield, took on the task of replicating the GFAJ-1 experiment. “I’m doing this even though I agree with all the other researchers who said this result is almost certainly wrong,” Redfield told me. “Scientifically, it’s really kind of a waste of time to try to replicate this yourself. But there’s always the possibility that you could be wrong. And more than that, there was just a general sense that, you know, somebody should try.”

    Full article here:

    http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/12/02/9168255-arsenic-life-debate-still-percolates

  38. Athena says:

    GFAJ-1… the gift that keeps on giving. To journalists, at any rate…

  39. Walden2 says:

    Study Fails to Confirm Existence of Arsenic-Based Life

    A new analysis by open-science advocates present a ‘clear refutation’ of a controversial finding that appears to undermine assumptions about how essential phosphorus is for life

    By Erika Check Hayden and Nature magazine | January 23, 2012 |

    Full article here:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=study-fails-to-confirm-existence

  40. Athena says:

    I’ve been tracking the experiments at Rosie Redfield’s blog and knew she was about to have the definitive cesium chloride/mass spec results.

    Let’s say I’m not surprised at either the results or Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s “response”.