Scientists: NASA’s alleged discovery of arsenic-based life is crap

posted at 9:28 pm on December 7, 2010 by Allahpundit

I gave it the front-page treatment when the big announcement was made, so now the big skeptical response gets front-page treatment too. Simply devastating — so much so that I wonder why it fell to an outfit like Slate to put it together. Did the Times or WaPo not have enough of an inkling about NASA’s discovery to survey naysayers before writing up their reports on the “discovery”? This information would have come in a lot handier when everyone was still paying attention to this story.

As soon 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…

In fact, says Harvard microbiologist Alex Bradley, the NASA scientists unknowingly demonstrated the flaws in their own experiment. They immersed the DNA in water as they analyzed it, he points out. Arsenic compounds fall apart quickly in water, so if it really was in the microbe’s genes, it should have broken into fragments, Bradley wrote Sunday in a guest post on the blog We, Beasties. But the DNA remained in large chunks—presumably because it was made of durable phosphate. Bradley got his Ph.D. under MIT professor Roger Summons, a professor at MIT who co-authored the 2007 weird-life report. Summons backs his former student’s critique.

But how could the bacteria be using phosphate when they weren’t getting any in the lab? That was the point of the experiment, after all. It turns out the NASA scientists were feeding the bacteria salts which they freely admit were contaminated with a tiny amount of phosphate. It’s possible, the critics argue, that the bacteria eked out a living on that scarce supply. As Bradley notes, the Sargasso Sea supports plenty of microbes while containing 300 times less phosphate than was present in the lab cultures.

The authors of the study declined to address the criticisms when contacted by Slate, but even a dummy like me wondered whether the bacteria might simply have been surviving like camels on tiny amounts of phosphorus instead of incorporating arsenic into its DNA. The theory proposed by at least one skeptic, in fact, is that the arsenic isn’t being incorporated at all; it’s simply adhering to the phosphorus that forms the framework of the DNA double-helix like gum on the bottom of a shoe.

Follow the link and read the whole thing. It’s essential if you tracked the story last week when it first broke. Exit question one via Greg Pollowitz: Did NASA have any financial motive in hyping this discovery? Exit question two: Should the GOP hold hearings if the study falls apart? C’mon — C-SPAN testimony on freaky deaky microbes would be riveting television.


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They really need to confirm that the arsenic is in the DNA before going any further with this.

WisCon on December 2, 2010 at 5:14 PM

Ha!

WisCon on December 7, 2010 at 10:12 PM

And for good measure, isolate the coding region, incorporate appropriate promoters and transform a model organism. “Just me and the pinto pony, over by the arsenic bush.”

Barnestormer on December 8, 2010 at 8:00 AM

Yes, I’m sure that explains how we got antibiotics, airplanes, satellites, nuclear weapons, antiobiotics, and the internet that you are surfing right now.

westernflyer on December 7, 2010 at 11:04 PM

Yeah, and I’ve concluded that all those things happened by accident, for no reason… they just happen to work. So everything you present to me to suggest otherwise will be mocked and all evidence to the contrary will be ignored.

mankai on December 8, 2010 at 8:24 AM

NASA workers are govt workers, and they believe in global warming, and the tooth fairy.

Kissmygrits on December 8, 2010 at 8:56 AM

Yes, I’m sure that explains how we got antibiotics, airplanes, satellites, nuclear weapons, antiobiotics, and the internet that you are surfing right now.

westernflyer on December 7, 2010 at 11:04 PM

those things, except for the internet which ALGORE created, just evolved! if evolution can come up with people, then an airplane is no big deal

right4life on December 8, 2010 at 9:01 AM

Reality Check: This is the way science is supposed to be done.

One group of scientists thinks they come up with something new, they publish the results,including data and methods. Other scientists start digging into it. Maybe it holds up, maybe it doesn’t, maybe we learn something entirely different from what comes out.

If only other branches within NASA were so forthcoming, for example NASA GISS with climate data and how they “homogenize” their data…

taznar on December 8, 2010 at 9:25 AM

When I was growing up, I loved to keep up with all of the fascinating things that NASA was doing. I still have the booklets they published about Skylab and other spacecraft.

But I’ve always had a reservation or two about the information about us and our planet that was sent into space on the Pioneer spacecraft during the early 1970s. If there is any life out there, intelligent or otherwise, we have sent them a “Come and eat us” sign, with directions on how to find us.

It may or may not be wise to believe that there is life out there, but it’s foolish to assume that other life forms would be a race of Klaatus.

KyMouse on December 8, 2010 at 9:27 AM

, we have sent them a “Come and eat us” sign, with directions on how to find us.

yep…the twilight zone…TO SERVE MAN…a cookbook!!

right4life on December 8, 2010 at 9:46 AM

Junk science and politics never mixes well in the lab.

The Zoo Keeper on December 8, 2010 at 9:59 AM

So. NASA ‘discovers’ life on Earth, and they couldn’t even get that right…

But still needs tons of funding to continue with the global climate disruption thing which is totally, 100% true and factual and junk.

catmman on December 8, 2010 at 10:06 AM

The NASA types just learned that other disciplines don’t suffer the same @$$hattery that the climate discipline does.

MNHawk on December 8, 2010 at 10:06 AM

N
E
Thing
for
more funding.
I sense another NASA fraud. Really.

SJBill on December 8, 2010 at 10:24 AM

KyMouse on December 8, 2010 at 9:27 AM

Couldn’t agree more.

linlithgow on December 8, 2010 at 10:26 AM

KyMouse on December 8, 2010 at 9:27 AM

Couldn’t agree more.

linlithgow on December 8, 2010 at 10:26 AM

Linlithgow, Steven Millhauser wrote an excellent short story in the New Yorker of Feb. 9, 2009 on this very topic. It’s called “The Invasion from Outer Space,” and you can find it at http://www.newyorker.com.

I highly recommend the story, but I hope it never comes true.

KyMouse on December 8, 2010 at 11:01 AM

Fake but accurate.

If there really are microbes that eat arsenic, this what they would look like.

Love,

The Team at NASA.

BobMbx on December 8, 2010 at 11:37 AM

But how could the bacteria be using phosphate when they weren’t getting any in the lab? That was the point of the experiment, after all. It turns out the NASA scientists were feeding the bacteria salts which they freely admit were contaminated with a tiny amount of phosphate. It’s possible, the critics argue, that the bacteria eked out a living on that scarce supply. As Bradley notes, the Sargasso Sea supports plenty of microbes while containing 300 times less phosphate than was present in the lab cultures.

Arsenic is in the same column of the Periodic Table of the Elements as phosphorus, so there are some similarities in their chemical behavior. If the researchers were feeding the bacteria salts enriched with arsenate (an ion consisting of one arsenic atom bonded with 4 oxygen atoms), it would have been difficult to completely eliminate phosphate (an ion consisting of one phosphorus atom bonded with 4 oxygen atoms), because phosphate and arsenate compete with each other in many chemical reactions in aqueous solution, and phosphates are far more abundant in the natural world. It is therefore extremely difficult to obtain pure arsenate without phosphate contamination.

There could have been another source of phosphate contamination, from either the water in which the bacteria were grown, or phosphates left over from the sterilization process of the containers in which they were grown. The water would have to be distilled to eliminate phosphates, but even the condensing tubes of a distillation apparatus could have some phosphate deposits on them which could be re-dissolved by condensing water. A sterilization procedure used to kill foreign bacteria (not used in the test) could break up the DNA of foreign bacteria and release the phosphate into a form usable by the test bacteria.

This experiment did NOT show that the test bacteria could incorporate arsenate into their DNA, but only that they had a high TOLERANCE for arsenate.

Steve Z on December 8, 2010 at 11:48 AM

I frankly just think life is cool when we can pay scientists to feed phosphate-laced salt to bacteria. Recession? What recession?

J.E. Dyer on December 8, 2010 at 12:03 PM

NASA has had a failure before:
http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/marslife.html
Now if you read through that, they are mostly honest about how their findings MIGHT be of bacteria.
This site I find pretty decent in analyzing NASA’s claim of bacteria in a meteorite.
I do, however, remember that story well, as I was at the UNWYO studying undergrad geology at the time.
All of my professors were unimpressed & thought it would end up as a bunch of hyped up crap.
I find their fossil bacterial evidence LAME & unconvincing.
Just another case for hype from NASA here.
Now whether it’s them that’s hyping it or the news in general, I do wish these people would be more careful & attentive when making supposed finds public information.
Better to get your $hit straight 1st & then present it.

Badger40 on December 8, 2010 at 2:19 PM

UNWYO

OOPS!

Badger40 on December 8, 2010 at 2:19 PM

If only other branches within NASA were so forthcoming, for example NASA GISS with climate data and how they “homogenize” their data…

taznar on December 8, 2010 at 9:25 AM

This.
Anyone withholding info in the sci world should always be highly suspect of incompetence &/or wrongdoing.

Badger40 on December 8, 2010 at 2:22 PM

Slate is far from the only magazine to come up with this and I have no idea if they were the first:

http://scienceblogs.com/webeasties/2010/12/guest_post_arsenate-based_dna.php

http://rrresearch.blogspot.com/2010/12/arsenic-associated-bacteria-nasas.html

Seems that in the last 20 years almost everything coming out of NASA is hype and BS. Government science at its best.

woodNfish on December 8, 2010 at 3:31 PM

Evidence for ET is mounting daily, but not proven

WASHINGTON — Lately, a handful of new discoveries make it seem more likely that we are not alone — that there is life somewhere else in the universe.

In the past several days, scientists have reported there are three times as many stars as they previously thought. Another group of researchers discovered a microbe can live on arsenic, expanding our understanding of how life can thrive under the harshest environments. And earlier this year, astronomers for the first time said they’d found a potentially habitable planet.

“The evidence is just getting stronger and stronger,” said Carl Pilcher, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, which studies the origins, evolution and possibilities of life in the universe. “I think anybody looking at this evidence is going to say, ‘There’s got to be life out there.’”

~~~

“There’s just gotta be aliens out there, there’s just gotta…!” -NASA.

Akzed on December 8, 2010 at 4:12 PM

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