Alien Life? NASA-Funded Study Questioned

NASA reported bacterium living on arsenic. Now, the pushback.

ByABC News
December 9, 2010, 2:10 PM

Dec. 10, 2010 — -- Carl Sagan famously said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." So you could have predicted that when Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team made an extraordinary claim -- that they had found a bacterium in a California lake that could be made to thrive on arsenic -- a lot of smart scientists would question her evidence.

It has been a week now since Wolfe-Simon published her findings in the journal Science. The paper, say scientists, is important -- if its conclusions are accurate -- because it broadens the definition of life as we know it, and means NASA's search for life beyond earth may need to broaden as well.

It became an online sensation before its release, partly because of a cryptic NASA news release promising "an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." The blogosphere has quieted down (microbes from California are less sexy than microbes on Mars), but some biologists still are on fire.

(Take a look HERE for our story from last week about why an arsenic finding, if correct, could affect the search for life in the universe.)

Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia in Canada wrote her own blog post: "Basically, it doesn't present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule)."

Redfield accused the Wolfe-Simon team of sloppy lab work and -- perhaps worse -- work you would only really do if you were trying to prove your findings, not test them to make sure they're right.

"Bottom line: Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information," she wrote. "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." Redfield is one of several scientists who now have sent letters to the editors of Science.

Of course, this is part of the regular give-and-take of scientific research: You publish your work specifically so that other researchers either can contradict it or, if they confirm it, expand on it. There is another saying in science, less frequently quoted than Sagan's: "Break it or break it in."

But several scientists contacted by ABC News and other organizations have said last week's paper should not have been cleared by the reviewers assembled by Science to approve it for publication.

Many comments were like this one from Pat Heslop-Harrison of the University of Leicester in England: "I rather hope the paper is pulled pending more quality data. I can't see how this made it past any reviewers."

Redfield, in a telephone interview, went so far as to say it could do Wolfe-Simon damage.

"Because she's junior, she could rescue her career by using the good science that's required now," said Redfield.

Alien Life? Scientists Question Arsenic Research

Wolfe-Simon, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey and had funding from NASA, did not immediately respond to messages from ABC News. And several people at Science and NASA said they had not heard from her since the paper's publication. She did post a statement that said, in part:

"Our manuscript was thoroughly reviewed and accepted for publication by Science; we presented our data and results and drew our conclusions based on what we showed. But we welcome lively debate since we recognize that scholarly discourse moves science forward."