Defining Moments: Arsenic-Based Life

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As we come to the end of 2011, we also come to the end of our year-long Defining Moments series. Once a month, all this year, weve looked back at the biggest events from exactly 12 months prior, and noticed how we can relate whats been changing our world to what we can do in our work. Wed love it if you were to check back over the series and let us know what you think:

January – Haiti earthquake

February – Tiger Woods scandal

March – Iceland volcano

April – Deepwater Horizon oil spill

May – United/Continental merger

June – vuvuzelas at the World Cup

July – Afghanistan Wikileaks documents

August – end of H1N1

September – Tyler Clementis death and the It Gets Better project

October – Chilean miner rescue

November – antimatter discovery

And now, December – when scientistsannounced that they had discovered arsenic-based life. What excited us about this story was not only its ground-breaking interest at the time, but the controversy that still swirls around it. It was startlingly important because, asNew Scientist explained, “Until now, all known life has been built around… six major chemical elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur… which make up proteins, lipids and DNA. In all normal life forms, phosphorus is a major part of the backbone of the genetic material.

Saying that an element that is not one of these six, and which is extremely toxic, could be swapped in – well, it sounded a bit like saying that gravity had an alternative, or that the sun didnt have to rise in the east. Scientists last December were essentially implying that life could be completely foreign to the way we always imagined it – not on some other planet in some other galaxy, but right here on Earth.

Commentators were reduced to unscientific reactions in their surprise:comments like “really weird and “shocking showed the startling nature of the news.

However, nearly as soon as the study was published, it was met with vehement criticism. Some said it shouldnt even have been published, as the science was done messily, with contaminants that could have given false results, or alternate explanations that were not addressed. The jury is out on whether arsenic-based life is as simple, and as groundbreaking, of a discovery as it first seemed.

However, this study and the reaction to it highlighted how social media is changing science. As the journalnoted sniffily five months after the studys publication, the debate was “finally being aired in the scientific literature rather than on blogs. The implication was that peer-reviewed scientific journalism was worth notice, and commentary hastily posted on blogs wasnt.

But isnt there something to be said for scientific debate happening rapidly and publicly? Certainly, theres no shortcut for thorough and accurate methods, for proper data analysis or for uninfluenced science.

But what if this study was on an anti-angiogenic molecule, instead of on a bacteria in a desolate lakebed? Would it be appropriate to react as this studys lead authordid, saying “We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time? I would say no.

Theres an argument to be made that the biggest leap we need to take in science and medicine is one in timeliness. The academics themselves aresaying that “Online scientific interaction outside the traditional journal space is becoming more and more important to academic communication. The story of arsenic-based life showed us both the pros and cons of speeding the process up.

Were glad you stuck with us for a year of Defining Moments. What would you choose for this years notable events?

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