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I Sing the Bacterium Arsenic: Post-NASA Press Conference Reflections

A few favorite quotes and personal thoughts from NASA’s astrobiology press conference:

“So we end a week of fiction and now start with the facts,” said Dwayne Brown, Public Affairs Officer from NASA Headquarters.

From principal investigator Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology research fellow:

“I’m always interested in exceptions to the rules.”

“These are not little potatoes, these are microbes which scientists lovingly call little bugs, but they are not bugs, they are microbes that look ordinary but are doing something extraordinary.”

“We took mud from Mono Lake and wanted to see if anything would grow if it was rich in everything else it needed, but instead of phosphorous we gave it arsenic. Not only did the microbes cope but they grew and thrived and that was amazing. Nothing should have grown. We wanted to find out what was happening, and we found the microbes were taking up the arsenic, and when we isolated the DNA, we found the arsenic was in there.”

“This will help inform us of life on our own planet and provide insight when we find it somewhere else.”

The Mono Lake Research area in central California

“Finding that microbes are possibly able to live without phosphorous – the idea that I’m sitting here discussing this is shocking,” said James Elser, a professor at Arizona State University. “This is quite a remarkable report.”

“I’m the curmudgeon here to throw a wet blanket on things,” said Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow from theFoundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. “I brought my Richard Feynman props with me. He said ‘science begins when you distrust the experts.’ But this is an exceptional scientific result, a clash of contradicting cultures.”

And my favorite: “This is a phenomenal finding,” said Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Program. “We are talking about taking the fundamental building blocks of life and replacing one of them with an unusual, perhaps not unpredicted, but another compound. In our mind this is the equivalent, and some of us remember seeing the original Star Trek episodes, of “Devil in the Dark” and the Horta. This in our mind is the equivalent of finding that Horta which is a silicon based life, substituting carbon, which is what we think all life forms are made of, with silica. Now we are talking about an organism that we think we are talking about an organism that, if not replacing all of it, appears to be using another fundamental component of life. The story is not entirely carbon. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and the other essential elements–it is replacing arsenic for phosphorus. This is a huge deal.”

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Now that the dust and hysteria has settled from NASA’s press conference on the new astrobiology discovery, I have to admit, this was an unusual week. As always, I had the opportunity to see the Science press releases as early as last Sunday, but since I normally write about rocket launches and space mission results, I didn’t pay too much attention to this biology-related topic. It just entailed some unusual stuff here on Earth, which could mean life anywhere might be more varied and different than we thought. I knew it would be of great interest to the astrobiology community, but figured the general public would probably go “whaa?” as far as the science. But then the world started spinning out of control over NASA’s “big announcement.”

While NASA routinely sends out announcements of upcoming press conferences, and then people start to speculate of what will be announced, this one was off the charts. The fact that the press release was embargoed and “secret” – and some people had access and others didn’t — seemed to fan the flames.

There was a buzz on Twitter, on various websites, and even across the mainstream media. Personal acquaintances who normally pay no attention to my work actually started calling and emailing me to find out what I knew about NASA’s announcement about extraterrestrial life.

While some people feel that the embargoed news system is broken in today’s fast-paced, social media world, I actually like the system, and agree with the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein, who was quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review:

“While the embargo system may have issues, I embrace it because it gives us a chance to provide context, outside comment and above all get it right,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In this hectic media environment, more than ever the world needs science reporters and editors who understand what’s happening, can tell fact from speculation, put phrases in context, be definitive and above all get it right. This whole sorry affair provides the proof of that.”

But, the CJR, asks, “Can anything be done to discourage misinformed, runway blogging that can lead to so much public confusion?”

It seems those who don’t have access to the embargoed releases want to be “first” in breaking the news. But as is often the case, the actual story is not nearly as sensational as all the speculation.

Borenstein again: “As a reporter who has covered astrobiology for more than a decade, I can tell you it has nothing to do with little green men or anything alien. Astrobiology is a series of little steps on Earth and beyond. Experienced science reporters know how to interpret the press release that got the speculation going. There is still a place for solid journalism.”

And in my bid for solid journalism, here’s my ode to the weird bacteria (with apologies to Walt Whitman):

I Sing the Bacterium Arsenic

Oh, little GFAJ-1
The potato-looking gammaproteobacteria, straight from Mono Lake
You are the arsenic to my phosphorous,
The sustenance to my poison
The arsenate backbone to your altered DNA,
The yin to the rest of the world’s yang,
The Horta to my Trekkieness,
And the reality to everyone’s wild speculation.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb December 3, 2010, 8:22 AM

    I said these questions before you posted this in the earlier story.

    Are you cynical of this story, and have questioned it implications?
    Do you think this important or panspermia driven (possibly with alliterative motives?
    Did NASA’s press release on all the television news programs with Felisa Wolfe-Simon really creep you out? (her demonic look was much of a concern)
    Why did she desperately avoid looking directly at the camera?
    Is she being deceptive?
    Does Felisa Wolfe-Simon groundbreaking oceanographic research on using arsenic for photosynthesis really just seems a little too convenient?

    This is why critical thinking is so important.

  • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb December 3, 2010, 8:26 AM

    I loved the AssociatedPress title for this story

    “Confirmed : Life Beyond the Earth is Still Unknown’

    Guess that sums it up for much of the population!

    [A YouTube embedded video of is at; http://www.realestateradiousa.com/2010/12/02/nasa-will-release-announcement-on-alien-life-in-press-release-video/

  • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb December 3, 2010, 8:29 AM

    I loved the AssociatedPress title for this story

    “Confirmed : Life Beyond the Earth is Still Unknown'” Just Google this title!

    Guess that sums it up for how much of the population took notice of this story!

    (Is there are reason you can’t post links within posts to UT anymore?)

  • Jake Tringali December 3, 2010, 11:42 AM

    I don’t understand why this isn’t a HUGE story! The definition of life has just expanded, people.

    I haven’t read the paper yet, but couldn’t this possibly expand the phylogenetic tree of life? Or even begin to prove a second genesis of arsenic weird life? Wouldn’t this be another blow to some aspects of religion? Is there a heaven for ‘arsenic weird life’? Am I carrying this too far?

    This also is another interesting test case of SETI’s post-detection policies regarding media embargo prior to complete and confirmed news dissemination. For that matter, where is SETI’s response to this news? Does arsenic life have different biomarkers than phosphorus life (for example, methane)?

    So, I’m excited.

  • Torbjorn Larsson OM December 3, 2010, 2:05 PM

    Space above, I can C&P from the other thread:

    The definition of life has just expanded,

    Not the general definition, no. The evolution process is what life operates under, and it can be defined as “Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations.” (Cw “Gravitation is a process that results in accelerations in a mass by another mass.”)

    If you wish, a framing process definition can be parsed down to exclude software (genetic algorithms) and hardware (von Neumann machines) and retain software (biological evolution). You can further add on metabolism to arrive at the common “NASA definition”, but that is an operative definition designed to quickly recognize life.

    The most general case is to look for systems that operate under the evolution process.

    couldn’t this possibly expand the phylogenetic tree of life?

    Read the article: gammaproteobacteria, fits snuggly in the existing tree, near E. coli I believe. Or maybe it’s just a gut feeling. :-D

    Or even begin to prove a second genesis of arsenic weird life?

    We know that there was a DNA LUCA. (There’s a Nature paper on the probability for LUCA vs the probability for, say, two ancestors: something like 10^2000 or so IIRC.) We also believe for good reasons that there was a RNA world with an LCA which descendant’s resulted in the LUCA. So there would have been a lot of paring down.

    Already Darwin was clear over the reason there “can be only one”; already established life tend to gobble up competitors but also new, naturally less competitive, protobiotic attempts. And of course over time the changed geology means there is little chance of later attempts; for example oxygenated atmosphere is not conducive for that.

    But as Wolfe-Simon et al notes, arsenic mononucleotides forms spontaneously, while our phosphate mononucleotides needs an enzymatic system. Among them NAD, a cellular energy “currency” (but not ADP/ATP).

    From this it has been hypothesized that arsenic could have been a protobiotic forerunner to phosphate, which later could have been adopted since it is ~ 1000 more ubiquitous. Of course, the downside to this reactivity is that arsenic mononucleotides hydrolyze in hours instead of days.

  • Torbjorn Larsson OM December 3, 2010, 2:06 PM

    I even C&P my “cute” fail: “retain software” – retain wetware.

  • Tony Ryals December 4, 2010, 4:36 PM

    Do these procaryotes still use Adenosine Triphosphate for
    respiration ? They still fit my concept of ‘organic inorganic
    coevolution’.However that’s still amongst the most radical biology
    news of my life time if true.Substitution of one mineral for another
    by an organism is not new however.Some organisms substitute selenium for sulpher into an organic structure when selenium is unavailable,as just one example.

    Pretty amazing however still doesn’t hurt the concept of
    organic-inorganic coevolution.It almost strengthens it….

    Organic-Inorganic Coevolution …

    by Tony Ryals

    Before life made a cell it must have occurred,
    Carbon and minerals wrote their first word,
    It was the basis of the biospheric revolution,
    Organic-inorganic co-evolution,
    From the simplest life-form viral,
    To the most complex evolutionary spiral,
    Dances within a watery solution,
    Using the elements of organic-inorganic co-evolution
    Even the genetic strand has the phosphorous mineral in its carbon configuration
    Phosphorous holds not only the key to energy transformation,
    And life’s respiration
    But is also essential to store life’s genetic information,
    And eventually human intellectualization,
    And what would be chlorophyll,
    Without magnesium its carbon bonds to fill ?,
    Without the magnesium impetus,
    There’d be no photosynthesis,
    And what would be the enzyme nitrogenase,
    Without molybdenum to fill its carbonaceous space,
    Nitrogenase alone would lack the inspiration,
    To perform prokaryotic nitrogen fixation,
    Without molybdenum fertilization,
    And long before hemoglobin came along,
    Other iron-containing heme groups sang their song,
    Before these iron-carbon molecules evolved for respiration,
    They protected oxygen-sensitive molecules from oxidation,…

    ………………………
    Also phoshorous and phosphates are still more important than most peple realize ……

    ………………………..

    http://malta.indymedia.org/node/8796

    Phosphates and the Pope’s Misconceptions about conception and science history

  • Aqua December 4, 2010, 6:08 PM

    Paradigm shift in progress.. hang on everybody! I’m rooting for something spectacular to happen soon, like finding symbiotic cryogenic superconducting neuron colonies on Titan!

  • William928 December 5, 2010, 6:51 PM

    I’m with you Aqua. How about microbes living in the Methane lakes on Titan……

    @Tony Ryals: Perhaps (re)read the site rules with respect to posting comments…….. Just sayin!

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