We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

#49: Arsenic-Based Life Shakes Up Science (Again)

Rosie Redfield takes scientific controversy out into the open.

By Michael Rosenwald
Dec 22, 2011 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:45 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

On December 2, 2010, NASA called a press conference to trumpet a discovery that the agency said would “impact the search for extraterrestrial life.” A team of scientists led by microbiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon took the stage and described a new bacterium, discovered in a salty lake, that incorporates the normally toxic element arsenic into its DNA. Finding a living thing whose fundamental chemistry is unlike that of any other known organism hinted at different kinds of biology that could take hold on faraway worlds. It was almost like finding alien life on Earth.

But once the excitement subsided and people examined the study closely, a nasty backlash ensued. “We found that evidence in the paper for such an extreme claim was really very weak,” says microbiologist Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia. “It was such a slap in the face for those who do good science.” Traditionally, researchers would resolve such a dispute by repeating the experiment in question and publishing their results in a respected journal after months of stringent peer review. Instead, Redfield took to the blogosphere, where she began publishing preliminary research refuting Wolfe-Simon’s claim, adding a second controversy to the first. “Most scientists are uncomfortable with this way of working,” Redfield says. “I wanted to use this as a high-profile example of doing science openly.”

But open science does not necessarily mean better or faster science. Redfield is still working on reproducing Wolfe-Simon’s experiment, so she has a way to go before she has enough evidence to confirm or refute the original study. Even if Redfield’s answer comes before a peer-reviewed follow-up appears, many scientists will not make up their minds until they see the tried-and-true scientific method play out.

Wolfe-Simon, meanwhile, is staying traditional. Last June, after enduring six months of online attacks, her team finally published a defense of its work in Science.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.