Brief arsenic followup

By Phil Plait | December 4, 2010 12:25 pm

Just to let y’all know, I did a short interview with the Canadian CBCRadio about the rumors and speculation on the ‘net leading up to the NASA announcement about the Mono Lake arsenic bacteria (here’s a direct link to the audio player). I also provided a very short quote about this to Radio Free Europe as well.

I know, this news is falling off everyone’s radar pretty quickly, which is to be expected. I may yet write my thoughts up about news embargoes and how media who use them shoot themselves in the foot. Sigh.


Comments (30)

  1. DNA mono-ionized phosphate diesters are arsenic-compatible. RNA, for the extra oxygen in its sugar and anchimeric assistance, will be inconveniently hydrolytically labile – but RNA is short-life anyway. The big question is ATP.

    Ionized phosphate polyanhydrides (ATP, Calgon) usefully persist in aqueous solution. The arsenic analogues vey rapidly hydrolyze, hence arsenic poisoning. How does the bacterium handle its ATP?

  2. Gordon

    “and how media who use them shoot themselves in the foot”

    we have big news in two days… like super big… ok, not as big as you are hoping for… crap

  3. ‘I’m pretty sure this will be an interesting scientific finding like something about exoplanet conditions, or the creation of organic molecules in some such place or another’

    – Phil Plait on Reddit.

  4. MadScientist

    Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I see a press release my reaction is I’ll wait and see what it’s about. In most of the cases I recall (you can bet on observational bias), the news wasn’t any big deal.

  5. Björn Lammers

    The Dutch newspaper NRC published a story today where a few Dutch scientists were interviewed about this find. They basically say that the hypothesis is ‘nonsense’.
    Here’s an abstract of the article, Google Translate does a very decent job on this:

  6. Joseph G

    I agree NASA could have handled the PR a bit more wisely.
    A bit off-topic, but has NASA ever published anything about radiotrophic fungi? Not only is it (obviously) highly radioresistant, but it actually uses gamma radiation to produce energy. Much like plants do. I know this is “old news,” but it really blew my mind when I first read about it, and it sounds like something that’d be well suited to exobiology, seeing as how organic molecules seem to be a whole lot more abundant in space then places that are safe from radiation. Maybe centuries from now we’ll send a probe to a pulsar planet, expecting to find nothing but rock, and find a planetary carpet of black mold ūüėõ

    @#5 Bjorn: I may be inferring things from the translation that aren’t there, but it sounds like a lot of sour grapes griping to me.

  7. J. D. Mack

    “I also provided a very short quote about this to Radio Free Europe as well. ”

    Michael Stipe approves. (sorry, but the song just entered my head).

  8. Buzz Mega

    Funny how many folk think Arsenic? Oo! Poison!

    Never considering that a spoonful of phosphorous on the tongue would be worse.

  9. Björn Lammers

    @ #6 Joseph: English is not my first language, so I don’t really know what you mean with “sour grapes griping”; does it imply a feud between the two groups of researchers or just jealousy? Although it is always possible that they are just jealous, I don’t get that from the original, full article (which is only available to subscribers, unfortunately). What it basically says is that they find the conclusion that As is incorporated in the cell’s biochemistry unsound. A lot of their arguments mirror those of “Skeptic As-hole” (#150 comment on the original post by Phil). They claim to have grown cyanobacteria on a medium with 1/100th of the phosphor of this experiment and conclude that these bacteria must be both very arsenic-tolerant and adapted to very low concentrations of phosphor.

  10. Nigel Depledge

    Björn Lammers (5) said:

    The Dutch newspaper NRC published a story today where a few Dutch scientists were interviewed about this find. They basically say that the hypothesis is ‚Äėnonsense‚Äô.

    If it were a mere hypothesis, I’d agree with them. But this is an actual set of obseravtions, which is a different thing altogether.

  11. Nigel Depledge

    Björn Lammers (9) said:

    I don‚Äôt really know what you mean with ‚Äúsour grapes griping‚ÄĚ;

    It’s an expression coming from one of Aesop’s fables:

    The fox who, try as he might, cannot reach the juicy-looking bunch of grapes then disparages them, claiming to anyone who will listen that they are sour, not from knowledge but out of pique. Subsequently, one of the other animals (I forget which) is able to reach them and finds them to be just as juicy and sweet as they appear.

    Thus, a case of sour grapes is an occasion when someone disparages something merely because he or she cannot have it.

  12. Björn Lammers

    @#10 Nigel: I am not a biologist or chemist and I did not read the actual paper (I probably wouldn’t understand most of it anyway), but from what I understand from people who actually read it they did not observe arsenic (or arsenate) actually taking part in the biochemic reactions in the cell, but they concluded from the amount of phosphor and arsenic in the cells (and the fact that the cells were still growing with almost no phosphor in the medium) that arsenic must replace phosphor in the biochemistry of the cell and in the DNA. The part where they measure the amounts is observation; the conclusions about the place arsenic takes in the biochemistry of the cell is hypothesis.

    Thanks for clarifying the expression; I looked it up and we actually use almost the same expression, derived from the same fable, in Dutch, but I never learnt the actual meaning. It is often used to just mean a disappointment, i.e. “John forgot to answer the questions on the last page of the exam and now the grapes are sour for him.”

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    @7. J. D. Mack Says:

    ‚ÄúI also provided a very short quote about this to Radio Free Europe as well. ‚ÄĚ
    Michael Stipe approves. (sorry, but the song just entered my head).

    The song? Which song? This one :

    do you mean? :-)

  14. Georg

    medical name for this kind of
    problem is “ejaculatio precox”

  15. Still majorly on the radar in many of the science forums and communities as far as I can see! However, not sure why NASA PR is being seen as such a villain. They give a few days notice for press conferences or events all the time. This was no different. Embargoes happen all the time and there was nothing unusual — except perhaps the rampant unscientific absurdity in the media that fueled an illogical hype before the press conference even started, which was unnecessary.

  16. Gary Ansorge

    12. Björn Lammers

    You’re Dutch? Cool. Can I visit you? It’s been 20 years since I was last at the Bulldog,,,

    If English is your second language(or third or fourth), all I can say is, your command of it is better than most Americans(which would be no big surprise to most Brits).

    I wonder how effective our DNA analyses can be, trying to disassemble such when it has As in place of phosphorus?

    Gary 7

  17. @16 Don’t be a dick and make those comments about americans, lumping us all together is exactly what the world needs to stop doing.

  18. @16 Don’t be a dick and make those comments about americans, lumping us all together is exactly what the world needs to stop doing.

  19. Kyle

    @17 Are you unable to take a joke? British English is quite different from, and predates, American English. From the British perspective we’re writing it wrong.

  20. Alex Murdoch

    Heard you on the CBC with Brent Bambury and was trying to follow the conversation, but all I could really think was “wait, wait, does anyone except maybe your Mom call you Phillip?”

  21. Embargoes, as Phil knows, were created to give reporters a chance to do more in-depth research without fear of being scooped. They don’t work very well in the Internet age, but as somebody who frequently laments the inability of the popular press to get science right, what would Phil replace them with?

    The push to be first is only going to get worse; if embargoes can’t be used to balance that push with “the push to be right”, what can?

  22. AJ in CA

    Perhaps “sour grapes” was a bad choice of words (and I agree with Gary – Bjorn does seem to have an excellent command of the English language, and sadly I HAVE seen plenty of native English-speakers who aren’t as proficient in it).
    It just seems odd for those scientists to outright call nonsense on something, period, end of sentence. Either the evidence is there or it’s not, and if the research methodology is flawed, I’d expect other scientists to point out the specific flaws fairly quickly.

  23. AJ in CA

    @#21: Sad but true – look at Wikileaks, for example! The internet truly proves the old saying that “Three men can keep a secret… if two of them are dead.”
    Since you’re probably going to get scooped anyway, the pressure is on media outlets to at least avoid being scooped to an embarrassingly large degree.

  24. Jess Tauber

    Or in the case of Wikileaks, if all three of them are dead. If there are any ships headin’ out past Pluto the folks there might want to think about booking passage. Maybe they’ll develop a neutrino based access to the internet so nobody can shut them down.

  25. Gary Ansorge

    I’ve had friends who spoke better english than I did and english was their third language,,,such multi lingual knowledge seemed amazing to me. I know only a few words in each of a half dozen languages. When I worked in Arabia, nearly everyone I met spoke SOME english, so it was easy to be lazy.

    I see that Wikileaks is being mirrored all over the planet( several hundred sites, it appears). The transparent society is upon us and few are ready for it.

    Think I’ll hang around for a while. Things are looking increasingly interesting.

    Gary 7

  26. Nigel Depledge

    @ Bj√∂rn Lammers (12) –
    OK, that’s different from what I have read, but I also have not read the original paper. I guess it serves me right for not checking the source.

  27. Bill

    Waitaminit — was that the big press release? Arsenic using bacteria? That was on a segment last night of “Morgan Freeman’s ‘Into the Wormhole'” and it was a rerun from months ago!

    I guess with the current grounding of the shuttle, NASA is relying on “old news is good news?”

  28. Joseph G

    WEird, for some reason my browser reverted to my old name (AJ in CA).

    @#25 Al Viro: Yes, exactly like that :)
    I’m not saying that NASA’s conclusions can’t be wrong, just that I’d like a more thorough exploration of exactly what they did wrong, and that’s exactly what appears in that link you sent: I the author lays out controls and procedures s/he’d like to see done in order to make sure that the original conclusions aren’t premature.
    I have no background in science, much less biology, so I can’t say much on this, but I guess I’d assumed that the original researchers had actually isolated DNA with phosphorus replaced by arsenic, but after reading that, it sounds as if they performed weight and spectrographic measurements that might not be specific to narrowing down the arsenic in thbe samples to the bacteria’s DNA. This seems rather central – it’s not arsenic-surviving microbes that are news, after all, it’s critters that actually USE the stuff.

  29. Björn Lammers

    @Gary: Thanks for the kind words. You’re welcome to visit, but I don’t live near Amsterdam (although to those wacky Americans 100 km may be ‘near’ ;-)).

    I see Phil posted a follow-up with more criticism from other scientists. I’m certainly curious what the final verdict will be!


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