The saga of arsenic-life: the next exciting episode…

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More than a year and a half after their first go-round, Rosie Redfield and skeptical colleagues continue to fling their gauntlets at the feet of Felisa Wolfe-Simon. It’s Chapter Umpty Ump in the Tale of the Dueling Microbiologists, also known as the Saga of Arsenic Life (Or Not).

In the unlikely case that you have forgotten, on December 2, 2010, the journal Science published a paper by Wolfe-Simon and a dozen collaborators claiming the discovery of  “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus.” This paper generated, first, a ton of media coverage, and second, a heated online critique, initiated by biologist-blogger Rosie Redfield.

This month, the journal Science (to be precise, its online Science Express) publishes two papers refuting the claims made by Wolfe-Simon et al:

* M.L. Reaves et al,  “Absence of detectable arsenate in DNA from arsenate-grown GFAJ-1 cells” (Redfield is a coauthor);

* T.J. Erb et al, “GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, phosphate-dependent organism.”

These papers, released to the mass media on July 8, have already generated another flurry of press reports. (I haven’t explored the blogosphere response as yet – I’m sure there is one….)

I’ve been piecing together The Saga of Arsenic Life (or Not) from my social-studies-of-science perspective.  Though I’ve not yet published my paper, I’m posting it hereon my blog site for your information. Once I revise it to accommodate this latest round of dialogue about the case, I’ll post an updated version here.

Meanwhile, I’ve talked with colleagues who are also exploring this case: Phil Mirowski at the University of Notre Dame, who’s exploring this story as a case of “trial by Twitter,” and Dominique Brossard and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who are studying the science communication in this case.

On January 20, 2012, the journal Nature reported, under the headline “Study challenges existence of arsenic-based life,” that Redfield and colleagues’ effort to replicate Wolfe-Simon’s experiment did not yield the same results. That is, they did not find that the microbe GFAJ-1, could incorporate arsenic in the place of phosphorus.

While the actual science involved in this story is beyond my ability to fully comprehend, I’m following the story as an interesting study of scientific rhetoric. (Full disclosure: I’ve met Wolfe-Simon, I’ve never met Redfield. Here I’m analyzing their texts.)

On December 4, 2010, Redfield blogged about the Science paper: “Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information…. I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda…. NASA’s shameful analysis of the alleged bacteria in the Mars meteorite made me very suspicious of their microbiology, an attitude that’s only strengthened by my reading of this paper…it doesn’t present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule).”

Wolfe-Simon, and NASA, responded to requests for comment on Redfield’s and other scientists’ criticisms by declaring the blogosphere an inappropriate forum for scientific peer review and declining to respond in that forum. Not only was their declaration to no avail, as the public onslaught continued, but also it provoked further criticism for dismissing bloggers as legitimate commentators.

On December 24, 2010, Science published an interview with Wolfe-Simon addressing the controversy about the paper, including this Q&A:

Q: After Saturday [4 December], when [Rosie] Redfield’s blog came out, at least some journalists took a look at the paper again and wanted to talk to you. If my information is correct, that’s when you and NASA declined to talk to reporters anymore about this. Is that right?

F.W.-S.: There are two issues. One is that, well, we wanted to be able to have that discourse in the scientific community, as a record. That’s the record, the literature record that we go back to—or has been up until now. So that was the one issue, and the other issue was the rapidness. We spent a lot of time really crafting our paper and crafting the SOM [supplemental online material] and crafting all the data, in terms of trying to show it as clearly as we thought. We wanted to give voice to that, in responses to these queries and some of the questions and issues brought up in the press, and we didn’t want to respond to it in a way that we thought would not give us the opportunity to think as deeply as we might need to. I was under a lot of pressure, and I’ll be honest, I was exhausted. I would really be lying if I told you that the barrage of criticism didn’t hurt. It did. I know my colleagues in the community aren’t thrilled or happy about this delay, but, again, I’m really doing my best.

Q: Are you going to start taking media calls again, or are you going to lay low for a while?

F.W.-S.: In talking to my co-authors, we want to get to work. We’re scientists, and it’s hard if all your time is taken up talking. I’m happy to explain the results, but there’s one thing, I think, to explain the results, and there’s another thing to be under what feels like an attack; it’s hard to do that.

Q: It sounds like what you want to do is not really spend much time with the media right now.

F.W.-S.: What we would want to iterate is that we’re thrilled that the public is talking about science. I think the media is an important part of the process. We absolutely don’t want to come off as evasive. We wanted the time to think. I think the physical volume at which questions and comments were coming in, I don’t know how others would respond. I mean, it was so much and so quick. In fact, during the press conference, I had a couple hundred, at least, e-mails coming in. I’m still on stage. I didn’t have my PDA with me. When I checked my e-mail later, they’re demanding, “Answer all my questions right now.” It’s really hard.

Redfield, in writing, can be combative. Wolfe-Simon, in writing, can be patronizing. Such stances are by no means unheard of in the history of science. Whether they are productive stances is another matter.

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