Friday, December 17, 2010

NASA braggarts walk it back

No questions, please, we’re scientists.

Just two weeks after a news conference breathlessly announcing a new, arsenic-based bacterial life form, NASA scientists have begun backing down from their “extravagant, textbook-changing claims.” Color us not too damned surprised.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, perhaps feeling burned by having run with a New York Times hook-line-and-sinker story on NASA’s claim, has staff writer Faye Flam take a suitably squinty-eyed look at government-funded scientists Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Ronald Oremland.

When criticism of their work appeared shortly after their presser, neither author deigned to take questions from the press or public about obvious soft spots in their claim. Yesterday, however, Wolfe-Simon released a statement “making a more modest claim.” And speaking at a panel discussion at the American Geophysical Union, Oremland, doing his best Claude Rains imitation, pronounced himself shocked, shocked at the overheated press accounts of their work:
He [Oremland] was baffled when asked why so many reporters used the word thrived to describe the bacteria’s state in concentrated arsenic. 
However, as Faye Flam points out, 
The word can be traced back to Wolfe-Simon at the news conference. “Not only did these microbes cope, but they grew and thrived,” she said, “and that was amazing.”
Baffling indeed.

Faye Flam also did some, uh, actual reporting and came up with a couple of nuggets.
The fact that the microbes can survive in concentrated arsenic is nothing new. In 1997, scientists published a paper in Nature Biotechnology showing they could grow E. coli in even more concentrated arsenic than Wolfe-Simon used . . .
Uh oh . . .
[Other scientists] balked at NASA’s insinuation that until Wolfe- Simon set them straight, they were stuck on the assumption that life elsewhere must use the exact same biochemistry as life here. Not only do biologists assume different chemistries are possible, they’ve already created some alternative forms of DNA - molecules dubbed PNA and TNA for example - that can also carry a genetic code.
Hmmm . . . so what’s left of all the hoopla? Well, NASA isn’t talking.
Members of the team were not available for additional comment Thursday. A NASA spokesman said it wasn’t part of the agency’s mission to evaluate peer-reviewed findings. “We funded it and by our charter when we have news, we have to release it to the public,” said Dwayne Brown of NASA. “Our role was to tell the public about this finding, and that’s what we did in the news conference.”
Dwayne Brown is a public servant paid with our tax dollars. Feel free to put your questions and comments to him directly.

Finally, more attention should be paid to the quality control at Science magazine which served up this steaming pile of half-baked research. Bloggers (Carl Zimmer) and reporters (Faye Flam) quickly found skeptical researchers willing to critique the paper—how come the editors at Science could not? Or if they did, why didn’t they listen to them?

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