Before the crowd roared over the Higgs there was GFAJ-1. Never heard of it? Almost a year and a half ago GFAJ-1 was the cause of much controversy in the scientific community, touted to be the first known organism that could substitute arsenic for phosphorous in its DNA backbone. Felissa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues from NASA claimed to have isolated a microbe with such capabilities from Mona Lake in Colorado, a high mountain lake with unusually high levels of arsenic. The paper was published in a very high-ranking journal, Science, with almost as much hype as the announcement of the Higgs.
Prior to the announcement, rumours were leaked that perhaps extraterrestrial life had been found and enormous fanfare surrounded the media release from NASA. Some claimed that this was the discovery of the century, or if you have an interest in the origin, evolution or discovery of life outside this planet, perhaps the most important discovery ever! But the announcement was not met with the same enthusiasm across the entire scientific community. Indeed the lab’s methods and interpretation were called in to question from the outset. Several labs set out to reproduce the results, some quite publicly, to ensure the claim was indeed a valid one. This week, two different labs have published papers, again in Science (here and here), refuting Wolfe-Simon’s claim. A very interesting furor has erupted, for the second time, but this time for very different reasons.
One lab in particular set out to reproduce the results almost immediately, but the difference was that the lead researcher Rosie Redfield blogged about the experimentation and results every step of the way. This is very unusual as in most disciplines of science results are guarded until a time where you don’t believe anyone else can ‘scoop’ you; that is to say, publish the same study before you do. As Adi mentioned in a previous post this is not necessarily the case in physics, but in any case Rosie’s actions and the subsequent debunking of the original claims has renewed the debate on transparency, rigorous scientific review (after all the original paper did go through the peer review process) and sensationalism in science.
I actually saw Wolfe-Simon present not long after the initial announcement at a very high-profile university in the States where she was applying for tenure. It was an impressive presentation to say the least, however back then I was no judge -not that I am now, I’d probably still be just as impressed. I was aware of the emerging controversy, and although I had a few questions I was way to green around the gills to dare ask for fear of sounding like an idiot. I can’t even remember what my questions were, they probably were idiotic. I remember having a discussion with a learned friend about how some people were born with the natural ability to assuage doubt, and transfix you with confidence. The lesson here would be to be careful in what you are placing that confidence….
GFAJ-1 was likely surviving on trace amounts of phosphorus in the chemical reagents used in the original experiments. And while GFAJ-1 still proves to be a very peculiar life form, with adaptation strategies for survival in extreme environments, I’m afraid the recipe for life on earth still appears to be carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus. Even if it is just a smidge.