A New Life Form on Earth?

Last week scientists and the science blogosphere were abuzz with the news that the very eminent journal, Science was about to publish research findings by NASA scientists that indicated that a new life form was discovered. Much of the hullabaloo was fuelled by a prior NASA announcement that read, “NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” When the paper finally came out it was titled, “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus.” A title innocuous enough for the lay person but for the biologist, the said bacterium was a stunning departure to the understanding of life as we know it—a novel organism, to say the least. The scientists who did the research even claimed that arsenic was part of the bacterium’s DNA.

All life are mostly composed of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and phosphorus, and use these elements in the cell’s biochemical processes as well as in its DNA. So far there had been no discovery that challenged this earthly constant…until this. Or was it?

Like the conduct of any good science, scientific findings—especially works reported in peer-reviewed publication—are there so that other experts can assess, question and critique. Within days other scientists were making known their comments and reservations about the results of the study as well as the methodology used. You can read some well-thought out responses here, here and here.

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