Happy Birthday, #arseniclife

By Carl Zimmer | December 2, 2011 10:38 pm

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Arsenic Life Affair. On December 2, 2010, NASA-funded scientists announced that they had discovered a microbe in Mono Lake that broke the rules of biology. They claimed it could build DNA from arsenic rather than phosophorus. It was a sensational claim, and it was greeted by a spectacular backlash.

Alan Boyle takes a close look at arsenic life on its first birthday over at MSNBC. Other scientists have yet to report whether they can replicate the results or not (the bet of many experts is on not). Meanwhile, other researchers are studying its biology, sequencing its genome, and otherwise investigating it as they would any new microbe. It seems as if the arsenic life affair is morphing into regular science. Which may be about as good of an ending as one could hope.

The year has been an intriguing one for me as a journalist–I’ve found writing about arsenic life as both science and the sociology of science to be very satisfying. Here’s a round-up of my main pieces:

1.Of Arsenic and Aliens, The Loom, 12/2/10

This was the first post I wrote, on the day of the announcement, explaining why arsenic life would be a big deal if it were true.

2. “This Paper Should Not Have Been Published,” Slate, 12/5/10

Over the next couple days, I encountered deep doubts among experts. I summarized their objections in a piece for Slate.

3. Of Arsenic and Aliens: What the Critics Said, The Loom, 12/8/10

I could not delve into the full details of the objections in my Slate piece, but I wanted to make sure readers could see that the critics were not shooting from the hip. So I posted their complete responses on my blog.

4. The Discovery of Arsenic-Based Twitter, Slate, May 27, 2011

Nearly six months after arsenic life was announced, Science finally published the paper, along with lengthy criticisms. It felt fairly anti-climatic to me; at Slate, I wrote about what I thought was the important outcome of the whole affair: an experiment in open science and post-publication peer review.

5. It’s Science, But It’s Not Necessarily Right, The New York Times,  June 26, 2011

As the Arsenic Life Affair was unfolding, several other high-profile papers were also under siege. Together, they got me interested in how science progresses: how scientific ideas are tested, and how difficult it can be for the wrong ones to be “de-discovered.”

6. #ArsenicLife Goes Longform, And History Gets Squished, The Loom, 9/30/2011

The first big feature on arsenic life appeared in Popular Science. I warned that a folk tale about everything being the fault of those pesky bloggers was taking root. (Soon after, the author, Tom Clynes, sent a long message to me, which I posted on the blog.)


Along with Boyle’s piece, you can also plunge into Bora Zivkovic’s epic link round-up for more reading.

[Image of Mono Lake by .Bala via Flickr, under Creative Commons License]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arsenic life, Writing Elsewhere

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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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