Arsenic life is one month old…


(This was first published at the Urban Times)

Arsenic crystals from Czeck Republic by Rob Lavinsky on Wikimedia Commons (CC-by-SA 3.0)

Arsenic crystals from Czeck Republic by Rob Lavinsky on Wikimedia Commons (CC-by-SA 3.0)

Indeed, long life for a dead-born. Let’s go back to this shameful story.

What happened in the beginning? Well, it really began in 2008, not in 2010: Martin Reilly from the New Scientist talked about the arsenic life. As Antoine Danchin writes in his recent paper in the Journal of Cosmology:

As a present for the new year, back in 2008, a prophecy appeared as a peer reviewed pre-publication. In this paper it was predicted that arsenic would be found in the backbone of nucleic acids of living organisms, replacing the ubiquitous phosphorus. The prophecy, as is often the case with this type of beliefs, also suggested a place on Earth where this would happen: Lake Mono in California (Wolfe-Simon et al., 2008). On April 6th, 2008, this prophecy was communicated to the world by a popular science magazine (Reilly, 2008). Now, at the end of 2010, as a Christmas present (in Continental Europe, December 2nd), NASA issued a sensational press release announcing that, yes, the prophecy had come true, and not on an exotic planet, but on our old mother Earth and exactly at the place where this was predicted to happen (Wolfe-Simon et al., 2010).

Indeed, as you may have heard, this story was really hyped around during some time. However, quite quickly serious concerns arose. My guess is the most appropriate, extremely well documented and solid one was from Dr Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia. She made a long list of flaws she noticed in the paper and qualified it as “lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information”. Among them, you can find the one that phosphorus was still present in quite high concentrations in the medium and the DNA was not analysed properly. The same day, Alex Bradley, a geochemist and microbiologist at Harvard, adressed one other concern, namely the instability of arsenic-containing compounds in water. He also mentionned the bad DNA analyse and suggested that mass spectrometry should have been used in order to solve the debate as this technique analyses in a very precise fashion the elements contained in a molecule.

More comments were being posted here and there and one could have thought that NASA would have taken them seriously. Amazingly (at least, to me), it didn’t. On the contrary, Dwayne Brown, their senior public affairs officer, said that the paper was published in a very high impact factor journal (namely, Science, impact factor > 30) and claimed in quite a patronizing way that debate science with bloggers was not appropriate. Wolfe-Simon also tweeted that “[d]iscussion about scientific details MUST be within a scientific venue so that we can come back to the public with a unified understanding.”. In other words, science bloggers are not peers, their scientific analyses are just crap.

But this shameful story didn’t stop here. After Carl Zimmer quoted “This Paper Should Not Have Been Published” in Slate, Ivan Oransky got in touch with Dwayne Brown from NASA. And his answer was really astonishing:

The real issue is that the reporting world has changed because of the Internet/bloggers/social media, etc. A “buzz” term like ET will have anyone with a computer put out anything they want or feel. NASA DID NOT HYPE anything – others did. Credible media organizations have not questioned NASA about any text. Bloggers and social media have……’s what makes our country great—FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

The discussion now is about the science and next steps.

This violent interjection definitely clears away NASA… As this was not enough, Ivan Oransky pointed out shortly afterwards that NASA did not follow its own code of conduct.

A lot of people reacted to the patronizing point of view that science bloggers are not peer review. Let me just quote David Dobbs, the most eloquent (to me), here:

Rosie Redfield is a full-bore member of the academy and a researcher in the field under question.[…] Rosie Redfield is a peer, and her blog is peer review.

As you may have guessed it, NASA and Dr Wolfe-Simon refused to answer criticisms. In a declaration on her website, Wolfe-Simon welcomed “lively debate” and invited researchers to address their questions to Science “for review so that we can officially respond”. Well, Dr. Rosie Redfield had already prepared hers. This saga went on with Dr. Redfield publishing Q&A along with her concerns on December 16. Even though Dr. Wolfe-Simon had answered some questions, the answers were not satisfactory: a great number of technical flaws still needed clarification.

Time of sobriety now. As you may have noticed, I did not go into scientific list of criticisms: it is not my aim here and others had already brilliantly done it. There are two questions I want to address here: one of them is towards scientists and the other one is towards science journalists.

So, dear peers, how is it possible to have published this kind of paper? Did reviewers give back critical comments? How many scientists did notice that a DNA presumably made out of arsenic is amplified by classical polymerase with some universal primers? How many did notice that this bacterium was reported in Wolfe-Simon et al. (2010) as part of the Halomonadaceae family? It was possible to perform a phylogenetic analysis of a presumably arsenic-containing DNA and a lot of “normal”, phosphorus-containing DNA and this shocked nobody during the reviewing process… A piece of gel with DNA in it was analyzed and that’s it, it is arsenic DNA? People from NASA finally — and half-heartedly — said they did not have enough money to do mass spectrometry  and others believed it, why not. But using Cesium Chloride gradient to discriminate phosphorus-containing DNA from arsenic-containing one was not that expensive; but it is so old school… How did respectable and critical people let this kind of shame come out in a peer-reviewed journal and, on the top of it, in a journal such as Science? How is it possible fellow scientists accepted that colleagues’ criticisms are dismissed only because written on a blog? Is it acceptable that one could do research with press releases and press conferences rather than with data and rigor? These questions are thus all about the guarantee of peer review and scientific ethics…

Is that arsenic-loving bug — formerly an alien — a dog?, asked David Dobbs. How many of you, fellow science journalists, did write a critical review? How many saw there was something dodgy in this story? And how many of you dared write your doubts? As above, many were those accepting at face value what comes out from NASA and Science. There is no intent for flagellation here, only a question aiming at making people keep critical minds aware all the time when they bring information to others.

The idea that arsenic could have replaced phosphorus as a central component of nucleic acids should never have been published in a scientific journal. However, the authors should not bear the whole burden of the blame. The nature of science is to conduct experiments with proper controls and obtain results. To be communicated to other investigators these results need to be written up and submitted as an article to a scientific journal for peer review. Unfortunately, because of competition for limited funding a hierarchy has been progressively built up, with some journals considered as more important than others because of the impact they have on their readers. Lacking proper scientific training, many journalists tend to take the impact factors of journals as a proof of scientific quality. This is not so, unfortunately. And more often than not, as we see in the present situation, high profile journals failed in the basic responsibilities required of a scientific journal and then participated in a strange and misleading publicity campaign that fooled the public. In a context where there is a growing loss of trust in science and scientists, this will have most damaging consequences. (Antoine Danchin)

UPDATE: “Rosie Redfield’s blog a game-changer for scientific debate”, by Stephen Strauss @ CBCNews
Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PC, Anbar AD, & Oremland RS (2010). A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. Science (New York, N.Y.) PMID: 21127214

Antoine Danchin (2010). Science and Arsenic Fool’s Gold: A Toxic Broth Journal of Cosmology, Vol 13, 3617-3620

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