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Are NASA’s Claims of Arsenic-Associated Bacteria Faulty?

News outlets and the blogosphere were buzzing last week about the lead up to (and subsequent) announcement by NASA on December 2nd that their astrobiology research team “has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.”

NASA claims that they have discovered bacteria at Mono Lake in California that utilizes arsenic from its natural environment as a substitute for phosphorus in its cell components, including its very DNA. This definitely qualifies as an extraordinary claim in my book. And as such, skeptics everywhere know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Is it ok to take the work of NASA and their scientists on such a bold statement? While it is a good starting point, in that NASA has a reputation of being one of the most critically acclaimed science organizations in the world, the claim must be followed up with more tests, evaluations, and critical assessments by experts in microbiology. As good practicing skeptics, we know that this is how real science works.

My good friend Eric Simon, an associate professor of biology at New England College, made me aware of a skeptical treatment of NASA’s claims by Rosie Redfield. Rosie is an associate professor of microbiology at the University of British Columbia and runs a microbiology lab at their Life Sciences Center.

Her posting is quite technical for the lay reader (me), but her main concerns with the science performed by the NASA scientists boil down to problems with the controls. This is a familiar theme to listeners of The Skeptics’ Guide to The Universe podcast: when we are examining the evidence provided by the practitioners of, say, alternative medical therapies or parapsychologists, we find that when controls are tightened, the claimed phenomena marginalizes to statistical insignificance, or outright disappears.

Rosie Redfield is being diligent by asking the researchers to go “back to the bench” and tighten up the controls and see how that effects the results. She’s genuinely disappointed that a team of NASA-funded researchers could be so careless to begin with, and what’s worse, come out with a press release and press conference announcing their findings before the scientific community and microbiologists around the world could scrutinize and critique the research.

Funny…Pamela Gay of AstronomyCast and I were recently talking at TAM-Australia about the practice of “Science by Press Relaease” and all of the inherent problems that accompany such a practice. (Pons and Fleischmann’s Cold Fusion anyone?) The SGU actually talked about an astronomy-based news item at our live presentation in Australia that dealt with this very subject. Sorry to end with a teaser like that, because that episode won’t air for another 5 days, but be sure to tune in – it helps put this NASA arsenic-associated bacteria news into better perspective.

2 comments to Are NASA’s Claims of Arsenic-Associated Bacteria Faulty?

  • It seems to me like it would be really easy to test this. Simply stripping away the accessory molecules until you have just naked DNA left and then measure the total amount, the phosphorous, and the arsenic.

  • globalcop

    Evan, you’re awesome. I came here to post about this and you’re a step ahead. Feels good to know I can sit back and you guys will be on top of it.

    Keep up the great work! I’m catching up from episode 1 (up to 230 now), but of course I always listen to the new ones as they post.

    I love you guys. I’ve gotten my sister and her husband scientist listening and I constantly comment about the show on facebook.

    Sincerely, Ed McNamara

    P.S. I started listening when I was in Iraq doing Infantry patrols.

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