Astrobiology: December 2010 Archives

Kepler Goes Into Safe Mode

"On Dec. 22, 2010, Kepler experienced a safe mode event. A safe mode is a self-protective measure that the spacecraft takes when something unexpected occurs. During safe mode, the spacecraft points the solar panels directly at the sun and begins to slowly rotate about a sun-aligned axis. This safe mode orientation provides the vehicle with the maximum power, and limits the buildup of momentum from the solar wind."

Exclusive Interview: Discoverer of Arsenic Bacteria, in the Eye of the Storm, Science Now

"Q: So, NASA approached you about doing a press conference, and you thought that was a good idea? F.W.-S.: I wouldn't say I thought it was a good or bad idea. I'd never been to a press conference, but it made good sense to me that my mom should know what I'd been up to, and I love teaching. So, it made sense to me at that level, in terms of, again, bringing what we did to the public. But we weren't clearly prepared, in terms of understanding how it might be, again, with the new types of media that are really rather amazing, what was exactly going to happen."

Response required, editorial, Nature

Blogs and online comments can provide valuable feedback on newly published research. Scientists need to adjust their mindsets to embrace and respond to these new forums for debate. ... "Purists who hold peer review as the casting vote in such debates will read [Felisa Wolfe-Simon's] words with approval. But the problem is that Wolfe-Simon's reticence is the polar opposite of the fanfare with which NASA trailed her discovery to the public. In an advance press advisory on 29 November, NASA trumpeted an "astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life". At a press conference to coincide with the paper's publication, the authors reported a more down-to-Earth, but nonetheless radical, discovery, claiming that an arsenic-tolerant bacterium had rewritten the rules of life as we know them. Such claims were always likely to bring intensive scrutiny, especially as many scientists think that NASA has form for making extravagant claims in the field of astrobiology."

Something's amiss with aliens and arsenic, LA Times

"I believe in the field of astrobiology ... but I think this was overhyped," said Rocco Mancinelli, a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute based in Mountain View, Calif. "NASA should have known better." Editors at Science did a cursory review of NASA's news release, but with work piling up before Thanksgiving, they didn't give it a thorough read, said spokeswoman Ginger Pinholster. "In hindsight, I surely wish that we had," she said. Dwayne Brown, the NASA public affairs officer who wrote the release, defended it as a "factual statement." "Clearly 'extraterrestrial' is a buzzword, but there was no intent to hype anything," he said."

Earlier posts

Study on arsenic-based life takes a beating on the Web, Washington Post

"Linda Billings, a George Washington University research scientist and NASA consultant on media issues, said that based on the mountain of blogs and comments she has collected, one of the central concerns appears to be NASA's use of the word "extraterrestrial" in its initial release. "The fact is that NASA is involved in the search for extraterrestrial life, and this research had some possible implications for it," she said. "But clearly, that word brings out strong emotions, and we have to be careful about that."

'Weird life' researchers answer critics, MSNBC

"For the past couple of weeks, members of the Mono Lake research team have declined to respond in detail to the criticisms, saying that they preferred to address questions through a peer-reviewed process. But today, team leaders Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Ron Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey said they were providing additional information about the experiments "as a public service ... while more formal review of their responses to comments sent to Science continues."

Response to Questions Concerning the Science Article, "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus" , Felisa Wolfe-Simon

"A key purpose of scholarly publication is to advance science by presenting interesting data and proposing testable hypotheses. Understandably, the most surprising findings tend to generate the most intense response and scrutiny from the scientific community. Post-publication responses to original research, and efforts to test and replicate the results, especially in cases of unexpected findings, are an essential mechanism for advancing scientific knowledge."

Backing off an arsenic-eating claim, Philadelphia Inquirer

"The original announcement, made at a NASA news conference Dec. 2, seemed to break a cardinal rule of biology that all organisms need some phosphorus to survive. NASA researchers claimed to have discovered an exotic organism in California's Mono Lake that lived instead on arsenic, thus broadening the types of life that may exist in the universe. The news made headlines worldwide including a New York Times story that ran in The Inquirer on Dec. 3. On Thursday, the researchers issued a more modest claim. Instead of saying the microbes had completely substituted arsenic for phosphorus, a new statement says the arsenic replaced "a small percentage" of the phosphorus."

What Poison? Bacterium Uses Arsenic to Build DNA and Other Molecules, Science

Earlier posts

Citizen Scientists Join Search for Earth-like Planets, Yale University

"Planet Hunters, which is the latest in the Zooniverse citizen science project collection, will ask users to help analyze data taken by NASA's Kepler mission. The space telescope has been searching for planets beyond our own solar system -- called exoplanets -- since its launch in March 2009."

The Wrong Stuff: NASA Dismisses Arsenic Critique Because Critical Priest Not Standing on Altar, Wired

"What he fails to see or refuses to acknowledge is that Rosie Redfield is a peer, and her blog is peer review. NASA has bungled its presentation of this paper from start to finish. It makes worse by trying to dismiss critiques this way. This is the wrong stuff."

NASA's arsenic microbe science slammed, CBC News

"When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn't feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications."

Microbe gets toxic response, Nature

"The big problem, however, is that the authors have shown that the organism takes up arsenic, but they "haven't unambiguously identified any arsenic-containing organic compounds", says Roger Summons, a biogeochemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "And it's not difficult to do," he adds, noting that the team could have directly confirmed or disproved the presence of arsenic in the DNA or RNA using targeted mass spectrometry."

The Right Place for Scientific Debate?, Columbia Journalism Review

"First there was the wild speculation about the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Then came widespread, sometimes misguided, coverage of the real news: discovery of a bacterium than can substitute arsenic for phosphorus, one six elements considered essential for life (which may, perhaps, expand the scope of humanity's search for life beyond this planet). Now comes the third installment in the commotion-filled saga: widespread criticism of the paper detailing the discovery, published last Thursday in Science, and an apparent snubbing of the media by the paper's authors and NASA (which helped fund the research), who rebuffed journalists' requests for a response to the criticism."

Arsenic-associated bacteria (NASA's claims), Rosie Redfield

"NASA's shameful analysis of the alleged bacteria in the Mars meteorite made me very suspicious of their microbiology, an attitude that's only strengthened by my reading of this paper. Basically, it doesn't present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule)."

Astrobiologists: Deadly arsenic breathes life into organisms, Arizona State University

"Evidence that the toxic element arsenic can replace the essential nutrient phosphorus in biomolecules of a naturally occurring bacterium expands the scope of the search for life beyond Earth, according to Arizona State University scientists who are part of a NASA-funded research team reporting findings in the Dec. 2 online Science Express."

Announcement of Earlier Kepler Data Release--from June 2011 to 1 February 2011

"The Kepler project wishes to inform the community that it is moving the next data release date (originally planned for June 2011) forward to 1 February 2011. This data set (Quarter 2) is the first consisting of a complete 3 months of observations. It will contain light curves for approximately 165,000 stars (most of which are late-type Main Sequence stars) brighter than 16th magnitude in the Cygnus & Lyra constellations sampled at a 30-minute cadence. Three subsets of one-month each of [up to 512] stars were sampled at 1 min cadence. The shorter cadence data will be released on the same schedule."

Keith's note: Multiple, reliable sources within the Astrobiology community tell me that NASA's Astrobiology announcement tomorrow concerns Arsenic-based biochemistry and the implications for the origin of life on Earth, how it may have happened more than once on our planet, and the implications for life arising elsewhere in the universe. NASA has not found life on any other world.

That said, as a biologist, I have to say that this is exciting stuff. It shows that other biochemistries are possible - more than just "life as we know it" and that the possible places where "life" could exist in the universe are now much more numerous as a result. What other biochemistries are possible? I am certain we'll be hearing much more about this.

Keith's 30 Nov note: As has happened before, NASA puts out advance notice of a provocative major discovery, media advisory and speculation goes into overdrive with titles of articles such as "Has NASA found life near Saturn?" based on a single, speculative blogger post.

Calm down folks. According to Alexis Madrial, a senior editor at The Atantic (and used to write for Wired) posting on Twitter "I'm sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I've seen the Science paper. It's not that." followed by "I'm obviously not the only one. It's available to journalists with access to embargoed EurekAlert content."

An article by several of the individuals (Benner, Wolfe-Simon) who will be participating in the telecon can be found below. Is NASA's announcement related to NASA's announcement? Who knows.

Signatures of a Shadow Biosphere, Astrobiology, Volume 9, Number 2, 2009 via The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System (A copy of the full article can be found here.) Authors: Paul C.W. Davies, Steven A. Benner, Carol E. Cleland, Charles H. Lineweaver, Christopher P. McKay, and Felisa Wolfe-Simon

"Astrobiologists are aware that extraterrestrial life might differ from known life, and considerable thought has been given to possible signatures associated with weird forms of life on other planets. So far, however, very little attention has been paid to the possibility that our own planet might also host communities of weird life. If life arises readily in Earth-like conditions, as many astrobiologists contend, then it may well have formed many times on Earth itself, which raises the question whether one or more shadow biospheres have existed in the past or still exist today. In this paper, we discuss possible signatures of weird life and outline some simple strategies for seeking evidence of a shadow biosphere."

Then there is this article by another one of the authors (Wolfe-Simon) dealing with putative life forms that use Arsenic instead of Phosphorus in their biochemistry. Again, the concept of a "shadow biosphere" and thoughts as to whether this can be applied to extraterrestrial locations are discussed.

Did nature also choose arsenic?, International Journal of Astrobiology, Volume 8, Issue 2 via via The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System

"All known life requires phosphorus (P) in the form of inorganic phosphate (PO43- or Pi) and phosphate-containing organic molecules. Piserves as the backbone of the nucleic acids that constitute genetic material and as the major repository of chemical energy for metabolism in polyphosphate bonds. Arsenic (As) lies directly below P on the periodic table and so the two elements share many chemical properties, although their chemistries are sufficiently dissimilar that As cannot directly replace P in modern biochemistry. Arsenic is toxic because As and P are similar enough that organisms attempt this substitution. We hypothesize that ancient biochemical systems, analogous to but distinct from those known today, could have utilized arsenate in the equivalent biological role as phosphate. Organisms utilizing such 'weird life' biochemical pathways may have supported a 'shadow biosphere' at the time of the origin and early evolution of life on Earth or on other planets. Such organisms may even persist on Earth today, undetected, in unusual niches."

Are these articles related to NASA's announcement? Reliable sources within the Astrobiology community tell me that the announcement does indeed concern Arsenic-based biochemistry and the implications for the origin of life on Earth, how it may have happened more than once on our planet, and the implications for life arising elsewhere in the universe.

Close Encounters of the Media Kind, Columbia Journalism Review

"Posts at's Cosmic Log blog, Discover's Bad Astronomy blog, and at the independent NASA Watch blog also tried to quell the otherworldly hysteria. (Further efforts have since appeared at the Associated Press and Time.) ... "This shows how important an experienced, trained and authoritative science journalism staff of reporters and editors is," AP science reporter Seth Borenstein wrote in an e-mail, responding to questions about the blog frenzy. "While the blogosphere has the luxury of speculating, The Associated Press seeks to be the definitive source through careful reporting and knowledge of the subject area."



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