NASA’s Arsenic-Eating Microbes Debunked
Producer/reporter Sheraz Sadiq of KQED’s QUEST — who wrote an excellent blog post explaining the hullaballoo surrounding last week’s announcement by NASA that it had discovered a completely new form of life –now points me to this Slate article debunking the experiment.
After a big build-up that even generated speculation about an impending announcement of extraterrestrial life, last Thursday NASA scientists said they had discovered bacteria at the bottom of California’s Mono Lake that ate arsenic instead of phosphorus. This “expand(ed) the notion of what life could be and where it could be,” said the NY Times.
The lead researcher on the experiment was Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology fellow at the United States Geological Survey in Menlo Park.
After the huge hoopla of last week. the Slate article, by Carl Zimmer, certainly begs a few questions, to say the least. Here’s the crux of it:
As soon as (University of British Columbia microbiology professor Rosie) Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. “I was outraged at how bad the science was,” she told me.
Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. “It would be really cool if such a bug existed,” said San Diego State University’s Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, “none of the arguments are very convincing on their own.” That was about as positive as the critics could get. “This paper should not have been published,” said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.
Zimmer contacted Wolfe-Simon and one of her co-authors, Ronald Oremland, for a response, but both declined to engage in the debate.
Read the full article here.