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Author of Controversial Arsenic Paper Speaks

8 December 2010 3:24 pm
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firestorm has erupted over the online publication in Science of the discovery of bacteria that use arsenic instead of phosphorus in their DNA. In response, the paper’s lead author, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, based at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, has put a statement on her Web site:="#p2">

My research team and I are aware that our peer-reviewed Science article has generated some technical questions and challenges from within the scientific community. Questions raised so far have been consistent with the range of issues outlined by journalist Elizabeth Pennisi in her Science news article, which was published along with our research. For instance, other scientists have asked whether the bacteria had truly incorporated arsenic into their DNA, and whether the microbes had completely stopped consuming phosphorus. Our manuscript was thoroughly reviewed and accepted for publication by Science; we presented our data and results and drew our conclusions based on what we showed. But we welcome lively debate since we recognize that scholarly discourse moves science forward. We've been concerned that some conclusions have been drawn based on claims not made in our paper. In response, it's our understanding that Science is in the process of making our article freely available to the public for the next two weeks to ensure that all researchers have full access to the findings. We invite others to read the paper and submit any responses to Science for review so that we can officially respond. Meanwhile, we are preparing a list of "frequently asked questions" to help promote general understanding of our work.

The hullabaloo began with a NASA press release about a press conference on astrobiology which led to wild speculations that NASA had discovered extraterrestrial life. Once the discovery was described, scientists began to grumble, and a very critical blog appeared, which attracted many more critical comments, and thus far, instead of responding directly to reporters following up on those comments, Wolfe-Simon and colleagues are waiting for criticism to come through peer-reviewed publications. One blogger has posted her intended letter to Science on this issue.