Arsenic-based lifeform? Maybe, maybe not. 5

JISHOU, HUNAN — Just a few days ago, the Internet was in a hub-bub about the discovery of a strain of bacteria that thrives in an arsenic-laced environment. Several biologists, however, are not so convinced, and have pointed out weaknesses in the scientific paper announcing the discovery. Carl Zimmer at Discover magazine just published a summary of some of these objections. The late astronomer and author Carl Sagan once wrote that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” In other words, if you claim you saw a UFO zipping across the sky from your backyard, your photographic “proof” had better not look like blurry shot of a modified dinner plate. Briefly, that’s what critics of the arsenic-loving bacteria paper are saying. They believe the authors’ methodology and analysis is flawed, so they want further evidence that these bacteria have really incorporated arsenic into their DNA, for example. This is how science works. Even Newton and Einstein, whose theories of gravity and relativity are now considered foundations of modern physics, had their critics when they were first published. Science is all about testing and verification of hypotheses. Peer-reviewed journals, like Science, run submissions past a panel of editors, who judge in part whether ...

News of the week: new life forms and Noah’s Ark in Kentucky 8

JISHOU, HUNAN — You win some, you lose some. In the nifty cool corner, we have NASA scientists discovering a strain of bacteria that actually likes arsenic so much to incorporate it in their DNA. No word yet on their reactions to old lace. Or elderberry wine. In the dunce-cap corner, we have Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear crowing that the Commonwealth is giving millions of dollars in tax breaks to a Noah’s Ark-themed (as in religious) amusement part. The first bit of news is exciting, because until this week biologists believed all life on Earth is based only on CHONPS (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur). Now we know some bacteria can live on CHONAsS. (I can just hear the jokes in high school biology classes now …) Phosphorous and arsenic are neighbors in the periodic table, with similar chemical properties. It’s what makes arsenic (As) poisonous. Our cells grab hold of the arsenic, thinking it’s phosphorus, but, alas, it’s just different enough that it kills us. These bacteria, found in an arsenic-laden lake in California could care less. Arsenic, shmarsenic. Chances are, they were not aboard the Ark with Noah’s kin and all those animals. Genesis says nothing ...
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