Authors of arsenic-based life study respond to Web critiques

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 11:00 AM

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, with other early critiques from online commentators including the American Enterprise Institute's Kenneth Green and Heather Olins on We Beasties.

"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.

"Bottom line: I don't know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they're unscrupulously pushing NASA's 'There's life in outer space!' agenda," she wrote.

In an interview, she said Thursday that hers is an obscure blog and that she didn't expect the response she has gotten - with more than 100,000 visitors. She said that response was a sign of the "anger" in the community.

Redfield was soon joined by dozens of other critics who, often very harshly, challenged the methods and conclusions in the Science paper. They also questioned the peer reviewers who vetted the research for Science, and some claimed that blogosphere review was the peer review of the future - following the lead of online critiques in law, medicine and other academic pursuits. Redfield disagrees with the notion that peer review should be abandoned, but defends the blogosphere outpouring as an important tool for researchers.

Wolfe-Simon, at 33 a young researcher to be making such a potentially important discovery, also didn't reply except to put out a statment that "Our manuscript was thoroughly reviewed and accepted for publication by Science; we presented our data and results and drew our conclusions based on what we showed. But we welcome lively debate since we recognize that scholarly discourse moves science forward. "

Linda Billings, a George Washington University research scientist and NASA consultant on media issues, said that based on the mountain of blogs and comments she has collected, one of the central concerns appears to be NASA's use of the word "extraterrestrial" in its initial release.

"The fact is that NASA is involved in the search for extraterrestrial life, and this research had some possible implications for it," she said. "But clearly, that word brings out strong emotions, and we have to be careful about that."

While much of the online commentary has been critical, one anonymous poster on Redfield's site saw it differently.

"Science isn't an exact science, we can't always know the best way to proceed," the poster wrote. "Obviously several experts, and the people reviewing for science are indeed experts, felt this paper was worthy - did you consider that fact at all, before you essentially denounced these scientists as a step below nincompoops and a step above frauds."

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