And the Truth Shall Set You Free: The Debate Over Arsenic-Based Life

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NASA’s recent “discovery” of a microbe that can survive using arsenic in place of phosphate has caused a media uproar. While this story received incredible media coverage, with release via NASA press conference, an article published in Science, a headline in every major newspaper, and zillions of blog entries, I suppose it is still possible that you missed the story. It goes like this: NASA research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues scraped microbes off the floor of Lake Mono in California, a lake with abnormally high arsenic content. Over time they gradually fed the microbes higher concentrations of arsenic while removing the phosphorus from their food source. They selected for microbes able to grow under these conditions and tested their biological composition. Researchers claim that arsenic was used in many biomolecules, replacing phosphate in the DNA backbone and in small metabolites. Scientists everywhere are in a tizzy over this pseudo-discovery. Rosie Redfield, professor at the University of British Columbia, posted a detailed public attack on the article. Slate magazine cites her saying “I was outraged at how bad the science was,” referring to the article as “flim-flam.” So people are angry about this. Some are even going so far as to accuse NASA of deliberately publishing crappy science just for the publicity. But let’s look on the bright side - the debate over this new life form demonstrates an important lesson. Science as a truth-seeking enterprise is infallible. Even when the peer-review system fails and some terrible science manages to get published in an incredibly prestigious journal, scientists around the world do not take it at face value. They continue to critically read what is published, and if they think it's bad science, they aren’t afraid to call it how they see it. Failure of the peer-review system is frustrating and worrying, but it can be overcome by the greater truth-seeking power of science. I am not claiming to know whether the science behind this new arsenic-based life form was flawed or accurate, but whatever the case may be, follow-up studies will be done and we will know whether arsenic can truly replace phosphorus in biomolecules, revealing a new form of life. That is the power of the scientific enterprise - truth seeking at its finest.

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