NASA Found Aliens! Or Not. The Worst Coverage of Arsenic-Loving Bacteria

By Jennifer Welsh | December 6, 2010 6:42 pm

not-an-alienWhile watching the science news for you here at Discover blogs, we’ve seen our share of bad science coverage. Most of the time, we let it slide. Most of the time, we write the truth and hope to overshadow the erroneous and exaggerated stories. But this time… this time we’re calling it out.

Last week’s coverage of the bacteria that live in Mono Lake, CA was over hyped because of a cryptic message in a NASA press release (namely, that the discovery would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life”). And even after all the build up, the early embargo break, and a long press conference, many news outlets STILL got the story wrong.

First, a quick recap of the important findings from DISCOVER blogger Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science, for those who were off-planet last week:

In California’s Mono Lake, Felisa Wolfe-Simon has discovered bacteria that not only shrug off arsenic’s toxic effects, but positively thrive on it. They can even incorporate the poisonous element into their proteins and DNA, using it in place of phosphorus.

While the discovery is amazing and definitely sheds new light on the search for life in extreme (even extraterrestrial) environments, it is important to remember that this doesn’t mean that aliens exits and definitely doesn’t mean that this bacteria is alien. I’m talking to you, Telegraph:

‘Life as we don’t know it’ discovery could prove existence of aliens
NASA has sent the internet into a frenzy after it announced an “astrobiology finding” that could suggest alien life exists–even on earth.

While the bacteria live in a relatively high-arsenic environment, which made them able to tolerate the presence of the poison, the critters typically still used phosphorus to build the “backbone” of their DNA double helix. It wasn’t until the researchers weaned them off the phosphorus in the lab that the bacteria began to incorporate arsenic.

This doesn’t mean these little bacteria are the second (or third, or fourth) coming of life on earth–they are the same “strain of life” as everything else on the planet (including us). This point seems to escape The Huffington Post, who led their incredibly misleading article with the title:

NASA Announcement LIVE: New Life Form Discovered (VIDEO)

Though, if both the headline and the article are misleading, is it really misleading? It seems that they got their false information from an article published by Gizmodo (also posted to Wired Science). In its original form (Gizmodo edited the post once they realized how wrong they’d gotten it), the post says:

NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living on planet Earth. This changes everything…. Discovered in poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible.

No, actually, it doesn’t change everything. While the exciting claims may change the way we think about life in extreme environments, there are still doubters in the scientific community. Many are saying that additional research is necessary to confirm Wolfe-Simon’s results, and some scientists are even suggesting that the study’s authors got it all wrong. We’ll keep you updated on the developments, but we can tell you one thing right now: it’s definitely not aliens.

Related Content:
The Loom: Of Arsenic and Aliens
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Mono Lake Bacteria Build Their DNA Using Arsenic (and No, This Isn’t About Aliens)
Bad Astronomy: NASA’s Real News: Bacterium on Earth That Lives Off Arsenic!
Gene Expression: The Alien Embargo and Other Follies

Image: adapted from Flickr/MJTR

  • Matt B.

    I think it’s important to note that the Mono Lake bacteria actually share almost every “biological building block” of life with everything living on planet Earth.

  • Lasse E.

    It’s great that you poke at the tabloids, but what I think you should do (in all english speaking countries), is to ponder over what you really mean by the small word “alien”.

    Last time I was in the US, I was considered an alien! I was just arriving from Denmark. Ok, you can take my story as a joke, but I real mean it. You need to define what you mean, when you say “alien”. Some people means ‘extra terrrestial’, some people means just ‘foreign’ or ‘different’ , some people means … whatever. I think you can pinpoint your problems to just this issue. Ok bye from Planet Denmark! :-P

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