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NASA: Arsenic-life saga isn't done

Mark Wilson / Getty Images file

"Arsenic life" researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon is flanked by Mary Voytek, director of NASA's Astrobiology Program, as well as chemist Steven Benner and astrobiologist Pamela Conrad during a NASA news conference on Dec. 2, 2010. Many of the claims made during that briefing have now been refuted in peer-reviewed research.


Nineteen months ago, NASA's experts on astrobiology hailed the initial report about arsenic-eating microbes as a "huge deal," but with the publication of two peer-reviewed papers that have refuted that report, the space agency now says the picture is "as yet incomplete."

The statement from Michael H. New, astrobiology discipline scientist at NASA Headquarters' Planetary Science Division, runs counter to the instant reaction that the "arsenic-life" controversy is finished. Since Sunday's online release of the two papers by the journal Science, a lot of folks have been talking about FAILs and nails (as in last nails in the coffin).


New took a different tack:

"NASA supports robust and continuous peer review of any scientific finding, especially discoveries with wide-ranging implications. It was expected that the 2010 Wolfe-Simon et al. Science paper would not be exempt from such standard scientific practices, and in fact, was anticipated to generate significant scientific attention given the surprising results in that paper. The two new papers published in Science on the microorganism GFAJ-1 exemplify this process and provide important new insights. Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable microorganism that can survive in a highly phosphate-poor and arsenic-rich environment toxic to many other microorganisms. What has emerged from these three papers is an as yet incomplete picture of GFAJ-1 that clearly calls for additional research."

University of British Columbia microbiologist Rosie Redfield, one of the authors of one of the newly published papers, said in a blog posting that NASA's response was "cowardly."

"I'm at a loss for words," she wrote.

It's easy to find commentaries on the Web indicting NASA as well as the authors of the original paper, scientific reviewers, the journal Science and journalists for their part in the arsenic-life controversy. Just as some folks scrambled to trumpet the news that evidence of life had been discovered on Titan, now there's a scramble to assign blame. But scientific sagas don't move as quickly as a Twitter stream, and it's a good bet that this particular saga isn't over quite yet.

Here's a sampling of the reaction:

Got more reaction? Feel free to pass along links or voice your own thoughts in a comment below.


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.