Study on arsenic-based life takes a beating on the Web

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010

Two weeks after the release of a major study about the possibility of arsenic-based life in California's Mono Lake, a torrent of criticism in the blogosphere has turned a widely reported scientific triumph into a scientific football - with much-discussed implications for how research will be evaluated and presented in the future.

After remaining largely silent to the critiques - which came from respected scientists as well as ill-informed posters - the researchers, their NASA funders and the prestigious journal that published the article responded Thursday with promises to better explain the work and answer formal criticism.

But in the fast-changing world of the Internet, it was also clear that those involved are not really sure how to respond without compromising their scientific methods and values.

Speaking at a panel discussion at a San Francisco science conference, convened specifically to discuss the arsenic research and the online response, study co-author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey defended his silence as an integral part of the tried-and-true scientific research process.

"I was trained to go to the lab and conduct my experiments, to send them to journals if they merited that, and to hope that they made it past peer review," he said. He can respond to critics, he said, when they present scientific arguments and data.

He said that when people launch online attacks on the work done by him and biochemist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, he doesn't really know who is behind them. "I don't want to get involved in what can end up in a Jerry Springer situation, with people throwing chairs," he said.

Yet not only was Oremland on the panel Thursday because of the blogging, but the research team also put out a series of answers to questions frequently asked about their work, and promised to respond by next month to more than 20 letters and e-mails sent to the the magazine Science questioning their work. The team announced as well that it would make samples of the microbes available to other scientists for their research.

Science spokeswoman Ginger Pinholster said that the journal hoped to publish the letters and responses in March. She said that while other Science papers have brought out challenges and criticism, the speed and intensity of the blogosphere response to the arsenic research was unusual, if not unique.

Active online discussion of the paper began even before it was released. Based on a NASA announcement about release of an upcoming study that had implications for astrobiology and "extraterrestrial life," some bloggers were predicting news of life on the moon Titan or elsewhere in the solar system.

Instead, the discovery involved microbes from Mono Lake, Calif., which were grown in a way that replaced most of the phosphorus in the organism (long held to be essential for life) with the generally toxic element arsenic. Using some of the most sophisticated instruments available, the team then determined the arsenic had replaced phosphorus in the DNA and other key molecules of the bacteria - creating a form of life long thought to be impossible.

The NASA news conference that presented the study included a skeptic, respected chemist Steven Benner, but that didn't stop bloggers from accusing NASA of both hyping the story and unquestioningly presenting flawed research. The first major blog attacking the work was posted by University of British Columbia zoology professor Rosie Redfield.

"Basically, it doesn't present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule)," she wrote. She accused the Wolfe-Simon team of sloppy lab work and not testing whether their results were correct.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company