Did Rosie Redfield just refute #arseniclife on her blog?

By Carl Zimmer | August 2, 2011 9:24 pm

Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia has steadfastly raised doubts about the headline-grabbing news about arsenic-based life last November. (If neither arsenic life nor Rosie Redfield ring any bells for you, check out my two pieces for Slate, in December and June.) Redfield then did something exceptional: she set out to replicate the initial findings, getting the original bacteria and seeing whether they can build DNA from arsenic when deprived of phosphorus.

And then she did something quite unique: she started to chronicle her experiences on her blog. It’s a fascinating peek into the lab notebook of a practicing scientist. Today’s post is especially intriguing:

“First evidence refuting Wolfe-Simon et al.’s results”

Among other things, Redfield reports that the bacteria seem to be able to grow at very low levels of phosphorus–levels that the original scientists claimed were too low to sustain the growth they saw.

Of course, Redfield has a lot of work left to do. She will have to run this experiment to its bitter end, write up the results, submit a paper to a journal, get it past peer review, and publish it in a peer-reviewed journal. But we can all watch her journey in real time.

[Update: Over on Google+, Richard van Noorden pointed me to a similar (if less headline-grabbing) live-blogged refutation in 2009.]


Comments (18)

  1. It will be interesting to see if she’s able to get it published. And if she’s not, maybe this will be the first step to open peer review via the Internet…

  2. Very interesting… and an extremely interesting experiment in science communications. I wonder if she will get reviews from her peers as she goes along.

  3. Snailbum

    Some concern here that the pressure for instant gratification that encourages some people to blog on events in process will lead to sloppiness — specifically the possibility that a statement of findings will make more impact that a series of follow-ups that say, in effect, well, not exactly. Call me a partisan of the formality of standard work and peer review.

  4. Chris

    I’m surprised it took someone this long to try and reproduce the results.

  5. @Snailbum: Wasn’t the instant gratification thing (“science by press conference”, as seen before in cold fusion) the cause of the trouble in the first place?

  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Seems Redfield knows her bacteria!

    [I’m miffed that I was catching up on her blog yesterday and missed the implication, despite not being buried in the minutiae of the experiment itself. Oh well, someone did and that is what counts.]

    @ Snailbum:

    Observations so far put the sloppiness on the side of “the formality of standard work and peer review”. (Modulo gratification from “science by press conference”, naturally.)

    And I simply don’t get the description of relative impacts in the context of blogs, it _is_ the follow-up that these blogs promote!?

    I don’t think your theory holds arsenic.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Chris, you may get an answer by reading Redfield’s blog, where she openly discuss (and changes her mind on) the pros and cons of reproduction vs “production” of results.

  8. @Chris – grants don’t often get awarded on the basis of disproving other people’s work unless it’s a felicitous side-effect of testing one’s own hypotheses.

    And I agree with both Snailbum and with Ralf. RR has been quite rigorous for years, though, in her online lab notebook; it’s always been an exemplary example of open science. There are also a lot of other groups practicing open science to varying extents, of whom many and by no means all can be found at OpenWetWare.

    RR definitely submits her group’s work to classical peer-reviewed journals. Nearly everyone does if they want to get taken seriously at the current moment. The open notebook philosophy has more to do with there being additional potential checks on the scientific process earlier on, to avoid much of the waste, culling, and, indeed, window-dressing that goes into preparing an article for publication, above and beyond the actual experiments. But in practice, few actually intervene at these stages, unless they are heavily invested in the same domain, and even then.

  9. Alexa


    The reason it is taking “this long” is because Dr. Redfield is doing careful, rigorous work, as detailed on her blog.


    I understand your concern, but disagree. Real-time posting is more likely to show the unprocessed results and reflect the reality of the work, while peer-reviewed publications can contain polished, cherry-picked data. There *is* the risk that reposts will misinterpret Dr. Redfield’s results, but at least we can always go back and look at the original data.

  10. Joe Rojas

    Why do so many insist on using the term “arsenic-based life”? Wolfe-Simon and co-authors proposed that the organism could to some extent substitute arsenic for phosphorous when P was limited. Do we call conventional organisms “phosphorous-based life”? Isn’t carbon the basis of living (organic) chemistry? Srsly.

  11. Chris

    A few years ago there was the discovery that MgB2 is a superconductor at 39 K (which for the uninitiated is really warm for a simple substance). This was a giant paradigm shift that practically every superconductor researcher wanted to find out the properties. Within a few months there were hundreds of minitalks given at a symposium.

    There was a similar feeling about cold fusion.

    What’s surprised me about taking this long was that arsenic based life is also a giant paradigm shift but except for criticism, no one has really tried to see if it is actually true. Now maybe most biologists think it’s crappy research and not worth their time. Also I’m not a biologist so my view that you could just call up the original researchers, FedEx some bacteria over and pop them in a Petri dish may have been a little over optimistic. In either case it’s good to see we’ll finally get some resolution.

  12. @Chris “I’m not a biologist so my view that you could just call up the original researchers, FedEx some bacteria over and pop them in a Petri dish may have been a little over optimistic.” Umm… yes. Biology takes a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rosie Redfield and other investigators have been moving as fast as possible (while still being rigorous) since day one. As a biologist (with the caveat that I’ve always worked with multi-cellular organisms) I can tell you that from conception to result in 6 months is actually very fast.

  13. Dave

    Carl, according to Redfield’s latest post she has confirmed that growth is stimulated by As in this organism. This still does not answer the big questions about this study, but it is as much a validation of some of Wolfe-Simon’s claims as the post that you link to above was a refutation of them. I am sure that you will be blogging about this partial reproduction of Wolfe-Simons work with equal vigor as you did for the partial refutation, right?


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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