The Real Scoop on Aliens Oops Arsenic in Old Lakes

Been a lot of hype over some strange life forms found in Lake Mono, encouraged, unfortunately, by some breathless, teasing press releases from NASA. But amid the muddle you can find some nuanced clarity in two stories in particular, from Nature News and Not Exactly Rocket Science.

First, Alla Katsnelson brings some good balanced coverage at Nature News:

A bacterium found in the arsenic-filled waters of a Californian lake is poised to overturn scientists’ understanding of the biochemistry of living organisms. The microbe seems to be able to replace phosphorus with arsenic in some of its basic cellular processes — suggesting the possibility of a biochemistry very different from the one we know, which could be used by organisms in past or present extreme environments on Earth, or even on other planets.

You could stop right there and know what this is and what it isn’t (aliens). But it’s a great treatment, so get the whole thing.

If you want more and/or want some needed swipes at the hype machine, check out Ed Yong’s treatment at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

The discovery is amazing, but it’s easy to go overboard with it. For example, this breathlessly hyperbolic piece, published last year, suggests that finding such bacteria would be “one of the most significant scientific discoveries of all time”. It would imply that “Mono Lake was home to a form of life biologically distinct from all other known life on Earth” and “strongly suggest that life got started on our planet not once, but at least twice”.

The results do nothing of the sort. For a start, the bacteria – a strain known as GFAJ-1 – don’t depend on arsenic. They still contain detectable levels of phosphorus in their molecules and they actually grow better on phosphorus if given the chance. It’s just that they might be able to do without this typically essential element – an extreme and impressive ability in itself.

Nor do the bacteria belong to a second branch of life on Earth – the so-called “shadow biosphere” that Wolfe-Simon talked about a year ago. When she studied the genes of these arsenic-lovers, she found that they belong to a group called the Oceanospirillales. They are no stranger to difficult diets. Bacteria from the same order are munching away at the oil that was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year. The arsenic-based bacteria aren’t a parallel branch of life; they’re very much part of the same tree that the rest of us belong too.

That doesn’t, however, make them any less extraordinary.

At which point Yong goes long, laying out what is awesome about this finding while reigning in the excess. UniverseToday gets kudos too for sounding the alarm early.

Finally, fun and useful too, especially to media and meta geeks, is Ivan Oransky’s dissection of how the hype machine and the embargo fed each other.

So this wrong call on holding the embargo until just now was Science‘s. And what better way to fuel even more speculation, and build suspense, than to not officially allow the very press that you supposedly hope will get things right to, um, get things right and tamp down that speculation? See, if Science won’t allow anyone to say what exactly the paper says, and meanwhile says the reports you’ve read — which by then included stories saying this wasn’t ET — were erroneous, there’s still a chance that NASA has discovered life on Mars after all!

But that frenzy goes away once you do the right thing lift the embargo. I should know. I’m deflating as I write this, knowing that the suspense of not knowing what I’ll tell my legions of fans will dissipate as soon as it posts. (But building suspense isn’t why I didn’t post. I didn’t post because I work at a big news organization and caution dictates that I don’t give embargoing institutions any reason to yank my access or that of my colleagues.)

It’s Wag the Dog. Or maybe the scene in Casablanca in which Captain Renault is “shocked, shocked” to find out that gambling is going on at Rick’s, only to be handed his winnings by a croupier.

Media. Got to mediate it. Don’t believe everything you read in the paper. Or here.

Image: Scientist searching for aliens arsenic in Mono Lake, California.

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