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

by Nancy Atkinson on December 3, 2010

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.


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

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