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It's not an arsenic-based life form (scienceblogs.com)
224 points by tokenadult on Dec 2, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 33 comments

This whole thing is yet another symptom of the science reporting ecosystem. Continual attempts at big bang news stories by institutions and their PR companies as well as a science media that goes for attention grabbing headlines.

Is this interesting and significant news? Absolutely, but the way it has been reported devalues the actual science done and misrepresents the science (and science as a whole) to the wider public.

Science is rarely about big bang eureka moments, it is long hard years in a lab building on someone else's work with a team of brilliant coworkers.

The way it has been reported devalues the actual science done and misrepresents the science (and science as a whole) to the wider public.

I agree. One very unfortunate thing is that this article probably won't reach all the people who saw the first wave of articles and are now thinking that an alternate form of arsenic based life evolved and is still alive today. These people are the ones that receive the news via some chain email, and don't bother to research the rest of the facts or any of the follow up from the rest of the scientific community.

This is the problem of treating science like a tabloid. Recently there has been a rash of speculation and downright silly articles based on misunderstood scientific discoveries. While on the one hand they often cause the public to take a greater interest in different scientific subjects, in many cases they are blown out of proportion or misrepresented.

Absolutely, the big ones are health discoveries where a study has found such and such is good/bad for you. It hits the headlines and suddenly everyone is eating more/less of X or taking supplement Y. The follow up studies that discover procedural/statistical problems or just over reaching claims get far less press and the meme continues.

It is like the myth that you should drink 8 glasses of water a day. In this case the advice (from the WHO I think) was people needed 2 litres of water a day, which can be sourced from your normal food and beverage intake. This was altered to drinking 8 glasses of water a day and promoted by the bottled water industry. I get into discussions with people about it over and over but because it is all pervading I rarely make headway.

Another one is wheat grass . . though I find a more receptive audience for that one usually, except from the committed hippy types.

The protein myth (that vegetarians don't get enough protein) was introduced in 1971. In 1991 the author of the book that created the myth retracted her statement but the idea will not die: http://www.diseaseproof.com/archives/diet-myths-complementar...

I was with the author until this:

> A dangerous myth To wrongly suggest people need to eat animal protein for nutrients will encourage them to add foods that are known to contribute to the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and many forms of cancer, to name just a few common problems.

The World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research published a report linking diet to cancer. http://www.dietandcancerreport.org/pr/?d=overview Unfortunately, I can't find the details easily accessible online, but there is a nice summary in the book Becoming Vegan. The basic findings were that increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables tended to prevent cancer and eating more meat tended to increase certain kinds of cancer. More specifically, they were able to link meat-eating to increased risk of breast, colon, prostate and pancreas cancer.

I'm also under the impression that the typical American's diet is out of balance--eating too much meat and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables. The protein myth could encourage people to add more meat to their diet when they may need to cut back.

To be completely fair, the link downplays the news more than it really deserves imo. That a bacterium (even an extremophile) can even be coaxed into substituting arsenic for phosphorus in some of its basic biochemical processes is quite mind-boggling. I mean, how, by what mechanism is this achieved?

The paper would have been stronger with some attempt at elucidating such a mechanism, but I can understand wanting to rush something like that out (particularly when it will certainly garner interest from a big name journal) before getting scooped.

I think PZ provided a decent grain of salt, pointing out what about the research is important, what needs more work and most importantly what it isn't telling us.

Iddo Friedberg has a great analysis of the paper: http://bytesizebio.net/index.php/2010/12/02/a-new-life-form-...

This is the best article I've read on the subject so far, short of the actual scientific publication.

I like how the author dives deep enough to give a you a good understanding of what actually took place while not making it sound like a scientific journal.

PZ is a reliable place to get the truth on biology/medicine based stories.

For space stuff Bad Astronomy usually provides the lowdown on the latest space story flooding the main stream press. (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/)

> Although maybe being in California gives them extra weirdness points

Good communication is always part showmanship, the author clearly grasps using a tone while remaining clear and concise.

And while we’re at it, I don’t remember any article here that said it was arsenic-based life, just arsenic-using.

Anyone think that the self-promotion done by Felisa Wolfe-Simon is a little strange?



Wait. You're asking this on HN where the vacuous Tim Ferriss gets mentioned almost daily?

At least Wolfe-Simon accomplished something, and isn't just trying to sell a questionable diet using absurd claims and photos of dubious veracity.

It was a little off-putting to me when I was watching the press conference, but it's pretty understandable given where she is in her career. If you look at her CV, she just finished her post-doc work last year. This is most likely her first year on the job driving her own research agenda and getting your work published in Science and widely discussed in the mainstream press can only help your tenure prospects.

Is she looking for another job?

No clue, I don't know her personally. But speculating from what she writes about on her website regarding her interest in teaching, I would assume she is interested in a faculty position at some point in the future.

I really can't blame her for the self-promotion. I think this in some ways is the academic equivalent of the acquisition: she got the scoop on a really novel idea, she's well positioned to do future work in the area and be recognized as the global expert (catch the "more to come in the next 15-30 years!" in the press conference), and she's really excited about the work. I can only assume biogeochemistry is not having loads of money thrown at it these days so she's smart to take advantage of this opportunity to really make a name for herself.

Definitely, terribly egocentric. I felt awkward as I was watching it, I thought scientists were the ones who were supposed to emphasize "us" v.s. "me". She did mention she worked with a team, but the "I"'s were more abundant than the "We"'s. I also caught a "myself and my team" instead of "my team and myself". She also talked a bit too much about herself.

I understand that she was the leading scientist and the one who had the idea, but still, I don't think you are supposed to act like that as a scientist, it makes you look bad. Besides, she also seemed to kind of take it personal that the chemist wasn't entirely convinced yet. Oh and she also looked a bit frustrated when the journalist asked over the phone line a question that made it look as though it was discovered by chance.

The culture, lab organization, and incentives unfortunately are making this more common I think. The head of a lab these days acts much more like a manager/boss, and less like a researcher among colleagues, than they might have a few decades ago. The role of grad students has become more employee-like as well, and professors aren't always too scrupulous about how much credit they give them.

Not that there haven't always been egocentric scientists, but their counterpart, the humble scientist who's almost too humble in emphasizing the role of colleagues, students, luck, collaborators, etc., is an almost extinct species.

It's interesting to compare the abstracts of a typical modern science paper versus one from 100 years ago or so. The old ones often have this almost exaggerated humility, along the lines of: Dear Sirs, I beg your time to present some results of my investigations which, though admittedly focusing on only on the special case X, will, I hope, add in some small way to the excellent recent treatment given the subject by Professor So-and-so. Today that abstract would probably be written the other way around, emphasizing the enormous importance of special case X, pointing out that while Professor So-and-so did study this broad area, his results are seriously deficient in some respect, and then closing with a sentence or two about how ground-breaking this new treatment of the problem is.

The old ones often have this almost exaggerated humility

Yes, but there were a lot fewer of them. Back when you could fit, e.g., the world physics community in a single auditorium, things were different.

And modern bio research is insane. It's insanely expensive, and it's insanely competitive. Even the most talented postdocs need luck and politics to escape permanent postdochood. So I don't blame the woman for coming out swinging. She's probably bright enough to realize that she's crazy lucky to have found something this interesting, even if the interestingness is exaggerated, and she should pitch this for all it's worth.

Yeah, I think that's the proximate cause: lots more competition and more insecure academic positions leads to more ruthless interactions with colleagues, a term that itself might be getting a bit obsolete with the decline of collegiality.

If I had to pick one part of it that bugged me most, it'd be the constant need to attack and dismiss other people's research. Very few scientists these days refer to something like the "excellent recent treatment of the subject by Professor So-and-so", unless it's a treatment of a subject that doesn't compete with the author's own research. Instead, usual practice is to paint competing research in the worst possible light, and only grudgingly admit any related work that was actually on-point and good.

There was PhD Comics strip somewhere that jokingly listed phrases least likely to appear in a scientific paper, one of which was, "Previous work by X et al (2009) was actually pretty good!". Of course, it's not entirely because authors have suddenly become huge jerks; the incentives on them push in that direction. With many more submissions, reviewers have gotten much harsher about demanding that authors distinguish themselves from existing work and prove that theirs is novel and superior, which supplies an incentive for authors to trash existing work.

So I'm curious if these cells can survive if reintroduced back in to the wild?

"Next, what they did was culture the bacteria in the lab, and artificially jacked up the arsenic concentration, replacing all the phosphate (PO43-) with arsenate (AsO43-). The cells weren't happy, growing at a much slower rate on arsenate than phosphate, but they still lived and they still grew. These are tough critters."

That seems to indicate that they wouldn't be able to compete with their cousins outside of a controlled environment.

     > That seems to indicate that they wouldn't be able to compete with
     >  their cousins outside of a controlled environment.
Not clear. They only grew more slowly when in a less friendly environment than they're used to. It's conceivable that the new environment selected for bacteria who can process AsO4 more quickly than the control strain, but it's not clear how well suited these new bacteria are to the original concentrations of AsO4 and PO4. Perhaps they'd do better, perhaps worse.

This group of descendant cells, having been selected by natural selection for the laboratory environment with high arsenic concentrations, might indeed fare poorly if put into Mono Lake with its different environment. Perhaps their descendants would be so few as to be undetectable.

So even if there weren't arsenate based to begin with, now we do have artificial arsenate life forms?

Depends on what you mean with the term artificial. We have artificial arsenate life forms in the same way we have artificial tame wolves.

Yes. What I meant: Even if we didn't have arsenate life forms, now we do.

I don't think most bacteria can even live outside of their "controlled environment". Like those in your gut or skin etc. So not sure what that means.

Where in that article does it say that it's not an arsenic-based life form?

In fact, it says exactly the opposite. It goes into detail about why it shouldn't be the much of a surprise. (Not that I agree with him.)

> Where in that article does it say that it's not an arsenic-based life form?

Life on Earth is carbon-based. There are no phosphorous-based lifeforms that we're aware of, so replacing phosphorous with arsenic doesn't make a carbon-based bacterial species into an arsenic-based one.

In the title.

Favorite line: biochemistry is all about CHNOPS.

Pronounce the "CH" like "SH".

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