… those bacteria that were using arsenic in their DNA? Not so much.

In 2010, NASA shocked the science community with the announcement that a bacterium from Mono Lake, CA had been found to substitute arsenic (found in the toxic lake water) for phosphorous in its DNA. This finding, were it true, would have rewritten the rules regarding the requirements for life, expanding the possibilities for where terrestrial, and especially extraterrestrial, organisms might be found.

In two papers released this week, though, that original claim has been refuted. The bacteria recovered from Mono Lake almost certainly do not use arsenic as originally reported. The original team is standing by their work, and NASA has remained quiet as far as I know. They probably have their arms crossed and are shrugging a lot with that look on their face. You know. Harumph.

There’s a lot of room to criticize NASA, and the original research team here. They pitched a three-ring circus to announce the original paper, and reviewers and editors alike should have provided far more scrutiny. But despite these bad decisions and flawed actions, this is not a defeat for science or the process. It is a victory for science, an example of where we self-corrected our errors, and in the process enriching both our knowledge and integrity. 

Here’s a report from USA Today with more on this long saga, and what we’ve learned.

Nobody says that science is perfect, but the process of experimentation and proper recording of results allows us to check ourselves and come closer to factual results. Hurray science!