Independent researchers find no evidence for arsenic life in Mono Lake

By Phil Plait | January 23, 2012 2:04 pm

Late in 2010, scientists participating in a NASA news conference dropped a bombshell: they had found evidence that bacteria in California’s Mono Lake were metabolizing arsenic and using it in their life processes.

This was huge news, since arsenic is toxic for carbon based life. If some forms of life evolved a way to process it, this would open up a whole new field of biochemistry!

However, almost immediately, the work came under attack. Biochemists accused the original team of not performing the research carefully (to put it delicately). Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was particularly critical. She decided, in fact, to try to verify the original work, and set out to do so openly, writing up her progress on her blog.

And now, according to an article on Scientific American, she can confidently provide a "clear refutation" of the arsenic uptake in the organisms:

Their most striking claim was that arsenic had been incorporated into the backbone of DNA, and what we can say is that there is no arsenic in the DNA at all.

That’s a pretty clear statement! The original team, lead by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, has responded, saying they need to see a fully peer-reviewed paper before making up their minds.

I’ll note that emotions have run fairly high throughout this saga. Dr. Wolfe-Simon got a lot of attention, positive and negative, and the negative was pretty charged. I’m not surprised by the reactions of either side of this issue.

In the interest of full disclosure, when the press conference was aired, I wrote a pretty straight interpretation of it. As I wrote in a followup post, I am not a microbiologist, and I trust NASA at some level. This event shook that trust quite a bit, and I am now far less likely to take a claim at face value, even when it comes from a source like NASA.

Science is a balance of trust versus skepticism, even at the best of times. An extra layer is added when the media become involved; that impartiality which is always precarious can be sorely tested by the chance at media exposure.

That includes my desire to write about something particularly cool, of course, as well as the more fundamental results obtained from the scientific research itself.

I’m glad this news has come out, and I’ll be curious to see what happens next. Dr. Redfield will need to submit her team’s work to the peer review process. Assuming it survives, I have little doubt we’ll be hearing from Wolfe-Simon again as well. In the Scientific American article, Dr. Redfield is quoted as saying, "We’ve done our part. This is a clean demonstration [that the original positive findings were incorrect], and I see no point in spending any more time on this."

That may be true for her and her team’s work, though I have a suspicion more work will have to be done either by her or other teams to categorically rule out the arsenic. But either way, what I can be certain of is that we are not done hearing about this story just yet.

Tip o’ the phosphorus backbone to Jeffrey Sullivan on Google+.


Related posts:

- NASA’s real news: bacterium on Earth that lives off arsenic!
- Arsenic and old posts
- Arsenic and old Universe

Comments (46)

  1. Stephen Bates

    Slight correction: Mono Lake is in California.

  2. MadScientist

    Come on Phil – you’ve worked for NASA and know how huge and complex the organization is. You’ll always get a few kooks making crazy claims. At least this one had some small entertainment value – the “Get Felicia A Job” bacteria was like something out of a Sid Harris cartoon. F.Wolfe-Simon in my opinion has really sunk any chances of being a career scientist; her behavior was one for the “how not to do things” book.

  3. Chris

    That’s great. Actually what would have been more great would have been if she confirmed the Arsenic was really there. Sure everyone has been saying the research is bunk, but a key hallmark of science is reproducibility. If the experiment can’t be repeated, it’s wrong. Now we have a definitive answer and can move on. I’m sure there will be some still trying to prove it (cold fusion research), but at least we have another data point to use.

  4. andy

    This is perhaps more interesting from the point of view of the culture of science, regardless of the status of whether or not these bacteria are in fact using arsenic in the way originally proposed. This experiment has been published as it goes along, essentially “open notebooks” on a blog. This is very different to the traditional method where something is published only after the experiments, peer review, etc. are already done.

    Certainly the advent of the internet is shaking things up here: already in physics there is the arXiv (which I find an invaluable resource as an amateur in all this), there’s a debate going on about open access to journals, and now this. Fascinating developments indeed.

  5. Huray for peer review and scientific processes. While some people may view this as a weakness or some sort of failing, it is a validation and testament to the process. And imagine the ARROGANCE of science to admit that it may have made a mistake based on new evidence. Shocking I tell you! ;)

  6. “I have little doubt we’ll be hearing from Wolfe-Simon again as well. ”

    Does she still have a job?

    If the kerfuffle drove her out of science, don’t count on it.

  7. As a microbiologist, I was pretty appalled by the quality of the paper. Hours after this story was being reported in the news, I downloaded the paper. Any experiment that actually would have shown that there was arsenic in the DNA was not done. If I had seen a first year grad student present these data, I would have asked them why they thought it wasn’t just arsenic contaminating their preps.

    The original paper *never* should have been published.

  8. Hans Nielsen
  9. Doug Little

    Science at work! Although I’m kinda disappointed that this didn’t hold up to scrutiny, It serves as a good example of the self correcting aspect of the scientific method in action. Of course the latest findings will probably need to be verified as well. Is there any hint that there has been some scientific fraud in play here or has it been chalked up to sloppy work?

  10. Hans Nielsen

    Sorry
    But Mono Lake is not in Nevada. Its in California. Near the eastern entrence to Yosemite

  11. Like with any other report making an extraordinary claim, there needed to be extraordinary proof and it had to be duplicated. What we’re seeing here is that it couldn’t be duplicated, so the original results have to be kept “in question.”

    I found it just as interesting that the bacteria were able to survive in such high levels of arsenic in the first place, and I think there’s a lot of potential in figuring out just how they do it. Yes, it would have been nice if they’d actually had arsenic in their DNA, but that apparently isn’t the case.

    NASA has to learn to stop rushing out with major “news releases” when it comes to something like this. I remember the Mars life in a meteorite claim – which is still an ongoing battle.

  12. Sean

    Nevada’s Mono Lake? I believe the lake is in California…

  13. Jeff Hester

    Hi Phil! Having seen the NASA PR machine operating at very close range over a period of 20 years, I can’t claim surprise that the original claims might have been… how to say?… overstated a bit. I know no specifics regarding this story, and like you am in no position to judge either the original claim or the rebuttal. But the pressure on a researcher to “make the most” out of a preliminary result can be intense, as is the pressure within NASA to find extraordinary results without particular care for their reliability. You might check to see what bills affecting NASA funding were before Congress at the time of the original press conference. As Ed Weiler commented to me years ago, “Barbara Mikulski doesn’t read The Astrophysical Journal. She does read the New York Times.” Cheers!

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Norbrook : Yep. I vividly remember the huge build up to the ” great secret discovery” that would be revealed followed by the let down of the announcement – which would have been more exciting and interesting if it hadn’t been built up so much beforehand – and then quickly afterwards the doubts and problems tearing this arsenic bacteria find down completely. This was a classic example of how NOT to announce scientific findings and what not to do PR wise. :-(

    Its a pity the peripheral media stuff was botched so badly – and that this arsenic bacteria discovery has been refuted – because it would have been a fascinating story and provided interesting insights into extremophile biology otherwise.

    But, OTOH, as (#3.) Larian LeQuella has been pointed out already, this actually shows science at its strongest – working to correct its mistakes in an effective way that we learn from rather than persisting in accepting what is wrong. Science knows the first rule of holes – when to stop digging and climb back out.

  15. Ausmith1

    Minor quibble but last time I was at Mono Lake it was entirely in California, not Nevada.

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Ausmith1 :

    Wikipedia :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mono_Lake

    confirms that point. There’s also a reasonably good & already up to date wikipedia page here :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GFAJ-1

    on the Mono Lake arsenic extremophiles themselves.

    This was a classic example of how NOT to announce scientific findings and what not to do PR wise.

    Still I guess the press conference could have gone even worse – see :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/12/02/nasas-real-news-bacterium-on-earth-that-lives-off-arsenic/#comment-340834

    (Comment # 123. Jason December 3rd, 2010 at 5:27 am on the ‘NASA’s real news’ thread. ) ;-)

  17. I also remember the huge build up and the let down of the announcement. But maybe if we had MORE of these fun announcements and some of them turned out to be TRUE it would make life more interesting. Especially for those of us who really don’t have a job anymore but like to live vicariously through people that still get to do research.

    I thought Wolfe-Simon’s idea of a career was too rigid to start with. She seemed too worried about that and not interested enough in the details of how these measuring devices work. Femtograms is not a lot. I think if she added a little engineering in with her music major it might have served her well.

  18. D’oh I said the lake was in Nevada, but it’s in California… very near the Nevada border. :)

  19. Mike Saunders

    I really doubt her career is sunk. She just presented her findings in a really bad way, and they turned out to be wrong. She might be a sort of loud mouth, but a lot of scientists are! There wasn’t intentional falsification of data going on as far as I know.

  20. Bahb

    “I am not a microbiologist….”
    And apparently not much of a cartographer either.
    Maybe you should stick with what you do know.

  21. Jason

    @Bahb
    “Maybe you should stick with what you do know.”

    If science operated that way, We would not progress.

  22. sophia8

    Bahb@ 22: For heaven’s sake, is a simple geographical error really worth all that dumping on? The place is only miles from the state border – Phil’s mistake is equivalent to me stating that Todmorden is in Lancashire. Would it invalidate everything else I ever wrote?

  23. Gary

    Confirmation bias plagues every researcher. So many are so eager to find extra-terrestrial life that they jump at anything suggesting it. “Trust no one,” was the good advice given Mulder and it holds in real life as well as in science fiction where new research is involved.

  24. Trebuchet

    The AGW denialists and creationists will of course come out with their usual “A scientist was wrong about something once, therefore…” shtick, completely ignoring that this whole episode demonstrates what’s best about science — it’s self-correcting.

  25. David Sanders

    The text of the original Science article misrepresents the data (Supplementary Table 1, for example) as does the authors’ Response to the Technical Comments. The authors have committed misconduct both in the original publication and in their persistence in their pseudoscience after it has been demonstrated incontrovertibly that they provide no evidence for their claims.

  26. Jess Tauber

    There must be a lot of types of bacteria and archaea adapted to the arsenic in the waters of Bangladesh. Maybe they don’t have it in their DNA, but just sort of wave it around in their cytoplasm and on their outer membranes hoping that some aspiring microbiologist will take notice and rescue them from their humdrum existence. Maybe femtograms ain’t much- would things be better with masctograms?

  27. Bahb

    @Jason 23: If people stuck with what they knew, rather than branching out into a subject they are clearly (and admittedly) not an expert at, not only would science advance, it would flourish. It would allow those who ARE experts in their disciplines to do their research and publish without being “arm-chaired” by every person who’s managed to read a Wikipedia article. Helen Thomas was a great journalist, earning herself a front row seat in the White House Press room. As soon as she started being a political pundit, she lost her objectivity which lead to her downfall when she opined about Jews and the Israel/Palestine conflict. When you think you’re a know-it-all, you end up with your foot in your mouth.

    @Sophia8: To Phil’s credit, he admitted his mistake and then corrected it. However, when editorializing, it is a good idea to make sure you have your information correct. Each tiny slip leads to doubt, which ultimately compounds into dismissal. When doing research, it is imperative to have peers review your work. It is that same peer review and the inability for other researchers to find the same results that has lead us here in the first place. Was she wrong? I don’t know. Is there doubt about her research, absolutely.

    The difficulty I have, and the reason for the original post, is that too many scientists and researchers are leaping too far outside of their expertise to comment on other subjects. I am sick to death of people like Michio Kaku popping up every time some “scientist” is needed for an opinion. Do I want to know his opinion on string theory? Absolutely. Do I want to listen to him expound on biology or world politics? Not at all.

    The ironic part is Phil’s statement: “Science is a balance of trust versus skepticism…” When you can’t get the basic facts correct, it throws everything you say into a critical light.

  28. Tom

    @Bahb: “When you can’t get the basic facts correct, it throws everything you say into a critical light.”

    All mistakes are not created equal. Accidentally putting Mono Lake a few miles east is the geographical equivalent of a typo; it does not throw everything into question. You’re just getting off on being a nitpicker and a pedant. (And if you don’t like Phil’s political commentary, you’re free to go read something else.)

  29. @10 Doug Little: Science at work! Although I’m kinda disappointed that this didn’t hold up to scrutiny, It serves as a good example of the self correcting aspect of the scientific method in action. Of course the latest findings will probably need to be verified as well.

    I came here pretty much just to say this, but you did it for me :)

  30. @15 MTU: This was a classic example of how NOT to announce scientific findings and what not to do PR wise.
    Thisity this. I’m not sure what NASA thought they’d gain from all this.

  31. Bahb

    @Tom: I do believe that I have the right to read and comment on whatever I choose. That being said, if you are building a house and are running rafters over a distance of 32 feet with each rafter needing to be on 16″ centers, a small mistake adds up quite fast. A mistake is the same if it is 1/4 inch or in another state.

    At the risk of being even more pedantic, if you are going to take the time to comment on the correctness of research being done, have your column proofread before you post it. If you are not professionally involved with the subject at hand, perhaps you should question the validity of your statements.

    My position and comments have nothing to do with “getting off”, but speak to the subject at hand: A scientist, backed by NASA, made statements that could not be corroborated or duplicated. This throws up a big red flag in general and specifically is an embarrassment to NASA. In Academia it is, “publish or perish” and if you can’t be trusted to publish correct information, you will eventually be cast aside.

    My suggestion to Phil to “stick to what he knows” was not the poke in the eye you have taken it for. He is rather intelligent and I enjoy his columns when he speaks to his strengths.

  32. Anchor

    “I am sick to death of people like Michio Kaku popping up every time some “scientist” is needed for an opinion. Do I want to know his opinion on string theory? Absolutely. Do I want to listen to him expound on biology or world politics? Not at all.”

    Agreed. That guy is nothing but a bloviated cringe.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    Bahb (29) said:

    @Jason 23: If people stuck with what they knew, rather than branching out into a subject they are clearly (and admittedly) not an expert at, not only would science advance, it would flourish.

    Clearly, you have missed the point of Jason’s comment.

    If we all stuck to what we knew, we would cease investigating the unknown. Since science is the process by which we learn about stuff we don’t already know, it by definition requires that people explore the unknown.

    Your point about armchair criticism is valid, but not relevant to what Jason was saying.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    Tom (31) said:

    All mistakes are not created equal.

    True.

    Contrary to what some people have claimed here, Phil’s mis-placing of Mono Lake is not germain to any of the points he makes. Therefore, it is a trivial error. It’s still an error, but it does not change the basics of Phil’s essay.

    Now, if the essay were riddled with similar errors, you’d have to wonder how much else he gets wrong, but a simple error in isolation does not really matter very much.

    And if we always lambasted commenters for making typographical or grammatical errors, why Messier Tidy Upper would never get any rest! (Just pulling your leg, MTU ;-) ).

  35. Nigel Depledge

    Bahb (34) said:

    @Tom: I do believe that I have the right to read and comment on whatever I choose. That being said, if you are building a house and are running rafters over a distance of 32 feet with each rafter needing to be on 16″ centers, a small mistake adds up quite fast. A mistake is the same if it is 1/4 inch or in another state.

    True, but Phil’s error (to extend your analogy) is more along the lines of using the wrong colour bricks rather than anything structural. If he were directing someone to drive to Mono Lake, the mistake would have been important. As it is, the biology of Mono Lake is what it is no matter what state it’s in. The bugs are what they are whether in California, Nevada, Texas or Namibia.

    At the risk of being even more pedantic, if you are going to take the time to comment on the correctness of research being done, have your column proofread before you post it. If you are not professionally involved with the subject at hand, perhaps you should question the validity of your statements.

    Well, this is true but not relevant to your criticism of Phil. Yes, he made a mistake. Hey, he’s human. Does that mistake change anything? Not really. Is the mistake an isolated one? Yes. Is it a big deal? No, at least not until you made it one.

    Being pedantic in turn, your comment is an argumentum ad hominem, i.e. you seem to have claimed that, because Phil got the state wrong, the entirety of what he wrote is called into question. Is that really what you wanted to say?

  36. MadScientist

    I’m with David @#27. Even the current response (“… need to see a fully peer-reviewed paper before making up their minds”) is just plain dopey and smacks of incompetence. Normally scientists are happy to read the work of colleagues before it’s reviewed and printed. If those folks don’t understand Assoc.Prof. Redfield’s work before a peer review, they certainly won’t miraculously understand her work after the review. On top of that I find Redfield’s writing excellent – I wish every paper I had to review were written so well.

  37. Dave

    @39 This article is a bit misleading, what Oremland actually said was that he wasn’t going to comment on Redfield’s results until they were peer reviewed. He didn’t say anything about waiting to make up his mind.

  38. I’ll admit I didn’t have a lot of hope for this one when I first heard about it, but even so I’m disappointed that this turned out to be a bust.

  39. Melf_Himself

    I wonder if her statement about not wanting to spend further time on it is related to her not wanting to put her findings through peer review. Which is a weird thing, since as we all know it’s “publish or perish” (in an actual journal, not scientific american) when you’re a scientist. I am not confident in her claims because of this.

  40. duncan

    you would rather go to your grave then even consider the possibility that there may be another view within the paradigm of the materialist view of consciousness .that is what creates the pathological skeptic in my view.is there a peer review in that one?what is the observer?

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