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Earth NASA Science

Arsenic-Friendly Microbe Now Seems Unlikely 122

Posted by timothy
from the but-it-sure-sounded-cool-at-the-time dept.
The Associated Press (as carried by the Washington Post) reports that the controversial report of arsenic-based life-forms in a California lake (much hyped by NASA) look suddenly less controversial, but in a way that will disappoint those who hoped that such an unexpected thing had actually been found on earth. Instead, the journal Science "released two papers that rip apart the original research. They 'clearly show' that the bacteria can't use arsenic as the researchers claimed, said an accompanying statement from the journal." USA Today's version of the story points out that the claim, and subsequent considered rejection of that claim as unsupportable, "looks like a case study in how science corrects its mistakes."
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Arsenic-Friendly Microbe Now Seems Unlikely

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  • Oh well... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday July 09, 2012 @02:19AM (#40588745) Journal
    It's nice to see that the matter was cleared up relatively quickly(the media circus wasn't pretty; but it could have been worse).

    On the minus side, arsenic-crazed bacteria are a rather cool theory to have dashed against the rocks of callous empiricism. Hopefully some sort of selective breeding experiment can succeed where nature has failed, and give us an organism that substitutes some or all of its phosphorus for arsenic...
    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Monday July 09, 2012 @03:30AM (#40589001) Homepage

      Personally, I'd like to see some experiments attempting to create an arsenic-based politician. Of course, I realize that there would likely be many, many failures on the road to succes, but such is science.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Personally, I'd like to see some experiments attempting to create an arsenic-based politician

        God no, politicians are already toxic.

      • by fatphil (181876)
        Stage 1 - create arsenic-based lobbying money.
      • by treeves (963993)

        Someone already got started on a polonium-based politician, but it didn't end well.

    • What would selective breeding really tell us about ET? That if we find another Earth maybe we'll find arsenic based life bred by human counterparts?

    • I wish the media would stay out of science until (and scientists stop reporting to the media), until their evidence goes threw the peer review process.

      Why did CFC get rather quick fixing when they found that it was causing holes in the Ozone layer, while Global Warming became a political nightmare? I think it is because the media got a hold of the CFC thing once the bulk of the science was peer reviewed and posted publicly. Global Warming, on the other hand had released its finding before the full peer re

      • by lennier (44736)

        Drowning Polar Bares

        Actually as far as I'm aware nobody has drowned during the midwinter Brass Monkey swim at Antarctica.

        And ursus maritimus is quite furry at all times.

    • by the gnat (153162)

      Hopefully some sort of selective breeding experiment can succeed where nature has failed, and give us an organism that substitutes some or all of its phosphorus for arsenic...

      You're not going to be able to do any better than millions of years of evolution by random mutation and natural selection. The selective breeding we've done so far is penny-ante stuff compared to the amount of molecular changes needed to support an arsenate-dependent biochemistry. It's not just the DNA and RNA; the underlying compone

  • and unfortunately a win for the nutters who say that we (the earth) are the only life made by God.
    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      and unfortunately a win for the nutters who say that we (the earth) are the only life made by God.

      Odd, I've never met any of them. However unlikely it may be, they actually could be right. What's nutty is assuming without any proof whatever that there is life elsewhere. There probably is, but just saying "it has to be" is stupid.

  • It's too bad. The author of the original research was totally hot.

    • by phantomfive (622387) on Monday July 09, 2012 @02:41AM (#40588845) Journal
      There's her picture [wikipedia.org], if anyone cares. You shouldn't.
    • by geogob (569250)

      I'm going to go ahead and propose the hypothesis that your comment illustrates the origin of the whole problem/situation.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      She looks good, but totally hot? You must have a low bar for totally hot. That is reserved for those who are.... well... totally hot.

    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Monday July 09, 2012 @03:57AM (#40589079)
      I realize this is the internet, and we slashdotters have a reputation to maintain, but seriously... ask yourself if you're proud of that statement. It's a scientist who happens to be female, and your first thought that you share with the world is on her looks?
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Well with her science being bashed against the rocks, her looks are all she's got left.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Rogerborg (306625)
        Well, she apparently can't do the Science for crap, so she needs something to fall back on.
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          As I understand it, the controversy really heated up when this researcher started shouting 'SEXISM!' at the first sign of peer criticism. As Sagan said (paraphrased) "If you're gonna make an extraordinary claim, be prepared to back it up with extraordinary proof!" Not assertions that those mean old boys are picking on you because you're a girl.
          • by starless (60879)

            As I understand it, the controversy really heated up when this researcher started shouting 'SEXISM!' at the first sign of peer criticism. As Sagan said (paraphrased) "If you're gonna make an extraordinary claim, be prepared to back it up with extraordinary proof!" Not assertions that those mean old boys are picking on you because you're a girl.

            Is this really true? What is your source for that?
            I believe that one of the biggest critics of the original research was Rosie Redfield (who is female).
            Redfield is also a co-author of on the Science papers.
            http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=study-fails-to-confirm-existence [scientificamerican.com]
            http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2010/12/this_paper_should_not_have_been_published.html [slate.com]

            • Kudos to Redfield then. I admit I didn't follow the story that closely. The few things I read about it indicated that the argument had ended up being divided mostly along gender lines. Thanks for the correction.
            • by fatphil (181876)
              I love the anonymous comment on RR's "scathing attack":
              """
              A 0.1 (10%) daily growth rate would result in a doubling in just over 7 days, not 10 as you 'think'. I'm not quite sure why I should trust your "scientific" analysis if you can't get your simple high school math right. (In this case simple exponential growth.)
              """

              I wonder if it was written by FW-S? Bitch-fight!

              But to be honest, I agree with the comment - such a level of innumeracy is unacceptible in any field which pretends to be a hard science. If sh
          • by the gnat (153162)

            As I understand it, the controversy really heated up when this researcher started shouting 'SEXISM!' at the first sign of peer criticism.

            I am not a fan of this research, but I do not recall ever seeing a claim of sexism being made, at least not by Wolfe-Simon or any of the people involved in the original work. What I do remember is them stating that they wouldn't respond to criticisms until they had been formally peer-reviewed, which most people thought was a bullshit response. Peer review doesn't just me

        • Well, she apparently can't do the Science for crap, so she needs something to fall back on.

          According to wikipedia, she plays woodwinds. So she's got that going for her...which is nice.

          Wolfe-Simon did her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College and completed a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and Chemistry and a Bachelor of Music in Oboe Performance and Ethnomusicology at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

        • Actually it sounds like she can do science pretty well. It sounds to me like the failures were in the peer-review process.

          We have peer review because scientists are biased and are poor judges of their own work. We naturally think the results we've spent long hours getting are worthwhile, and have a natural human tendency to be biased into thinking our hypotheses are correct. If her experiments didn't prove her case, her mentor should have realized it, and the reviewers should have sent it back. She w
  • by CheshireDragon (1183095) on Monday July 09, 2012 @04:09AM (#40589111) Homepage
    That is the one thing great about science. Science admits its wrongs...

    Religion simply can not do that because GOD IS NEVER WRONG...grrrrr blarggggg ahhhhhhh
    • by azalin (67640)
      Actually they do from time to time. It just takes ages. Galileo for example has recently (1992 to be precise) been officially rehabilitated by the catholic church.
      • by chthon (580889)

        yes, it sometime takes a long time, but the Catholic Church is the only religious institution doing that kind of retraction.

    • by bytesex (112972)

      You're using a strawman.

    • by Gr8Apes (679165)

      And then I recall a story just last week about how Germany passed an anti-child abuse law and the Jewish and Islamic faiths are up in arms and joining forces condemning said law because their faith requires them to "correct" a flaw god made in men. And then I recall an even more disturbing story: ritual could pose fatal risk to infants [cnn.com]

      • by Anonymous Coward

        I'm not sure you understand what circumsision means to the Jews. It wasn't to correct a mistake in design, it was a physical demonstration on the part of Abram (Abraham) that he entered into the covenant with God. Without that demarcation, the descendants of Abraham would be apart from the covenant with God. Correcting a mistake was never part of the deal. It was a marker to seperate those chosen from those not chosen.

        • by Gr8Apes (679165)

          I'm not sure you understand what circumsision means to the Jews. It wasn't to correct a mistake in design, it was a physical demonstration on the part of Abram (Abraham) that he entered into the covenant with God. Without that demarcation, the descendants of Abraham would be apart from the covenant with God. Correcting a mistake was never part of the deal. It was a marker to seperate those chosen from those not chosen.

          I note that the same passage apparently approves the sale of children.

    • Except religion isn't God, it is man's interpretation of man's text. Religion in the past had no problems admitting it was wrong. It is just a matter of convincing the masses of followers and figuring out what they were wrong about.

      Unlike in Science, the masses typically don't accept a paper as end-all truth(unless we are talking Catholicism). It typically takes several groups to determine something is correct or wrong, and only followers of those groups end up agreeing. At least until the other groups reac
      • by KhabaLox (1906148)

        Unlike in Science, the masses typically don't accept a paper as end-all truth(unless we are talking Catholicism). It typically takes several groups to determine something is correct or wrong, and only followers of those groups end up agreeing. At least until the other groups reach the same conclusions.

        Actually, that sounds a lot like Science. Competing labs/universities reach different conclusions; third and fourth parties try to replicate results; arguments and debates erupt over mailing lists and academic conferences; etc. And in the absence of consensus you end up with factions adhering to, say the Standard Model or one of the flavors of String Theory.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09, 2012 @05:03AM (#40589297)

    The original study was published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals with high rejection rate. Just another proof highly selective journals by commercial publishers don't decide to publish based on technical correctness but on trendiness. Sensationalistic papers are accepted even if they are technically incorrect, technically correct but non trendy ones are rejected because they're too boring. This is the biggest problem with commercial scientific publishing, they have no incentive to publish correct science, only incentives to publish science that get them in the newpapers.

    • by starless (60879) on Monday July 09, 2012 @09:06AM (#40590431)

      The original study was published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals with high rejection rate. Just another proof highly selective journals by commercial publishers don't decide to publish based on technical correctness but on trendiness. Sensationalistic papers are accepted even if they are technically incorrect, technically correct but non trendy ones are rejected because they're too boring. This is the biggest problem with commercial scientific publishing, they have no incentive to publish correct science, only incentives to publish science that get them in the newpapers.

      I think that you're way overstating this. Although Science (and Nature) definitely want to publish high-impact science, and there's usually a need to do things very quickly, which increases the chance of error, papers are heavily refereed. The paper would have been sent to 3 referees, and to have the paper published, at least 2 of them would typically have had to agree to publication. In addition, "interesting" papers have a higher chance of being wrong that a run-of-the-mill paper appearing in some other journal which has no surprising results.

    • by the gnat (153162)

      This is the biggest problem with commercial scientific publishing, they have no incentive to publish correct science, only incentives to publish science that get them in the newpapers.

      Science is not a commercial publication; it is produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science [aaas.org], a non-profit organization. Many people have made the argument that the problem is with high-profile, "prestige" journals, who do frequently seem to favor publicity and high citation counts over sound science. H

  • To keep those fat grant checks rolling in.

    Yes, yes, Good Science has corrected Bad Science, but the people that did that Bad Science should go and consult on Discovery Channel "docu-dramas" rather than stinking up academia with their attention whoring claims.

    • by KhabaLox (1906148)

      the people that did that Bad Science should go and consult on Discovery Channel "docu-dramas"

      So you want them to peddle their Bad Science to the general public, who then go out and vote for School Board members?

  • by gr8_phk (621180)

    They 'clearly show' that the bacteria can’t use arsenic as the researchers claimed, said an accompanying statement from the journal.

    Sounds like these folks made the same error as the original author. Let us not speculate on weather the arsenic has been assimilated into critical molecules inside the organism. Let them instead determine the chemical composition of the actual molecules in the organism and say definitively what is going on. I for one took the original research as somewhat speculative sin

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I've checked both papers (in fact have both of them opened right now...). Both papers show that the bacteria does not incorporate arsenic into DNA what so ever. It is sad that two research groups had to 'waste' their time proving what everyone already knew. I really mean _knew_ not assume. There were so many flaws in the original paper that it should have been shot down by the reviewers... but wasn't.

      • by treeves (963993)

        Was the claim that As was incorporated into the DNA, or into some other cell constituent. I thought it was supposed to be part of the metabolic process, so wouldn't expect to find it in DNA.

  • ...she apparently published a paper in 2009 [nature.com] talking about how arsenic may have been used in the past and might be used now. Then in 2010 she happens to find an example?

Aren't you glad you're not getting all the government you pay for now?

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