Arsenic Paper Reviewer Can’t See Out of Ivory Tower

As the Bug said to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black (at about 1:20 in clip above) “You don’t get it.”

Even as the blogosphere tries to check the claims (and press coverage) of last week’s Richard Hoover paper about alien life in meteors, behavioral and evolution researcher Zen Faulkes, over at NeuroDojo, notes a major fail in a review in press at BioEssays of last December’s controversial Wolfe-Simon paper about the Mono Lake bug. He reports that the reviewers flat out ignore a wealth of existing critiques on the Wolfe-Simon paper — and tries to obscure its omission by suggesting that such critiques were anonymous. Here’s Zen:

To recap: In early December, NASA holds a press conference relevant to astrobiology, wherein Felisa Wolfe-Simon announces a paper on a very interesting bacteria. The bacteria is indisputably arsenic tolerant, but Wolf-Simon and her eleven co-authors claim that the bacteria is not just tolerating arsenic, but using it in place of phosphorus. Before the weekend is out, strong criticisms of the paper appear on blogs. Wolfe-Simon initially refuses to respond to anything that isn’t in a peer-reviewed journal, but later relents and put up a FAQ on her website.

Now, criticisms are appearing in the peer-reviewed literature, like this one by Rosen and colleagues. The analysis is quite a helpful one in many ways, providing good background information on things like how cells can use arsenate (arsenolipids instead of phospholipids, for instance).

Their summary is that there is no “fatal flaw” in the paper that rules out the possibility of bacteria using arsenic (“no positive data” is how they put it) and that there needs to be more research.

Unfortunately, if you’re hoping to see how they accommodate criticisms from other researchers that some argued disproved the notion of arsenic being used in DNA, you’ll be disappointed. This paper not only tries its best to ignore the widespread commentary about the original paper on the blogosphere, it dismisses it. Here’s all they say:

This study has generated significant commentary, often as anonymous electronic communications.

This conflicts with my impression, which was that almost all of the commentary was signed. There was Rosie Redfield and Alex Bradley. Carl Zimmer got a dozen researchers to comment, all with their names in place. There was so much written in the blogosphere about arsenic life, that some of the commentary was pseudonymous (which, as many emphatically point out, is different than being anonymous). But the most prominent critics of the Wolfe-Simon and company paper were certainly not anonymous.

Writing an entire article evaluating the arsenic life paper without any references to what happened on blogs is both disingenuous and bad scholarship. To compress all that online commentary into a single one-liner borders on the unethical, because it so profoundly distorts the events following the release of the paper.

The review, “Life and Death With Arsenic,” was written by Barry P. Rosen, A. Abdul Ajees, and Timothy R McDermott. Is this the rigorous, scholarly peer review that NASA said it was waiting for? It’s another case of ignoring even the priests because they’re not standing on the right altar.

Get the rest of the story at NeuroDojo. You can also find Zen Faulkes on Twitter as DoctorZen.


Rosen BP, Ajees AA, McDermott TR. 2011. Life and death with arsenic. BioEssays: in press. 10.1002/bies.201100012. (DOI link may not be working yet; try it isn’t.)

Silver S, Phung L. 2011. Novel expansion of living chemistry or just a serious mistake? FEMS Microbiology Letters 315(2): 79-80. DOI:10.1111/j.1574-6968.2010.02202.x

Wolfe-Simon F, Blum J, Kulp T, Gordon G, Hoeft S, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz J, Webb S, Weber P, Davies P, Anbar A, & Oremland R. 2010. A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus.Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258

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