Remember last week's big NASA announcement about a new kind of life—one built out of arsenic rather than the usual phosphorous? Yeah, about that: According to a number of scientists, the study was "fatally flawed."
When NASA first announced it would hold a press conference "to discuss an astrobiology finding" last week, a lot of us got very excited. We thought, following Jason Kottke, that maybe NASA would announce that it had found life on another world, and we would all gather in the desert to welcome new beings to our planet, ready to be upgraded to a higher, hopefully erotic, consciousness.
As it turned out, the announcement was somewhat less interesting: Basically, a group of researchers had succesfully grown, under lab conditions, a microbe that was "made" of arsenic, and not phosphorus, the "backbone" of all DNA. Which was still cool! And major! Even if no tantric alien sex-meld occurred. And we all, to the best of our abilities, freaked out, and felt good about NASA for once, and told our friends about it, and then went back to watching videos of cats playing instruments.
[Microbiology Professor Rosie] Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. "It would be really cool if such a bug existed," said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, "none of the arguments are very convincing on their own." That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.
Shelley! That's totally harsh! But not unfounded. See, there are a few troubling aspects of the arsenic-life study. Like, for example, that the microbes stayed whole in water, despite the fact that "arsenic compounds fall apart quickly in water"—meaning that they were potentially still "made" of phosphorous. Phosphorous which may have entered the mix through phosphorous-containing salts that the study's authors fed the bacteria.
The study's authors say they'll respond to the criticisms in the scientific literature, which, depending on how mad you are, is or is not a cop-out. But they're also willing to give out samples of their lil' arsenic babies, so it should be easy enough to suss out the truth. Too bad no one will care, really. But, on the bright side, America has already forgotten about the arsenic microbe thing in the first place, whatever it was.