Friday, June 8, 2012

Phosphorus is still king (The arsenic bacteria saga)

The results are in. No arsenate backbone in bacterial DNA.  The much awaited paper comes from Rosie Redfield's group who has devoted their time and resources to refute the original Science paper by Felisa Wolfe-Simon's group on arsenic bacteria "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus." Why expend so much energy to refute someone else's work?  Well, the original paper's claim essentially suggests that our society needs to expand our notions of what forms life can take since there may be more than sugar-phosphate backbone DNA out there. That's a big enough impetus if you ask me. I'm not saying that it couldn't be true, but precaution should be taken when you make world-changing claims. You better be sure - it's a part of doing responsible and respectable science - and you should be able to stand by your work after the media frenzy dies down and the critics emerge.

Just to give you a brief background, the headlines blew up over this "arsenic bacteria" paper speculating that this is the building blocks of extraterrestrial life.  As an example, Alien: "Did NASA Discover Life on One of Saturn's Moons?" The answer, of course, is NO, since the original authors got their samples from the arsenic-laced waters of Mono Lake in California, not from outer space.

The rebuttal paper will also be published in Science - surprise! surprise! - and is already available at ArxivBut I doubt that it will grab the front pages as the original paper did. How will the Wolfe-Simon's group respond? Dun-dun-dun. This story, from claim of new discovery to the rebuttal, is what makes Science so interesting! Democracy here is exemplified at its best, so the original authors are free to respond and deliver new proof. I'll keep my eyes peeled for the next Science manuscript and headlines, and maybe also on Retraction watch, but my gut feeling is that all this whole hullabaloo will die with a whimper.

No comments:

Post a Comment