Scientific Inquiry: Arsenic for Phosphorus in Bacteria Cells

Posted on December 5, 2010  Comments (0)

As would be expected with significant new scientific claims, scientists are examining the evidence. On her blog, Rosie Redfield, who runs a microbiology research lab in the Life Sciences Centre at the University of British Columbia, disputes NASA’s recent claims. This is how science is suppose to work. Scientists provide evidence. Other scientists review the evidence, try to verify the claims with experiments of their own and the scientific inquiry process moves toward new knowledge.

Arsenic-associated bacteria (NASA’s claims)

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).

The authors then grew some cells with radioactive arsenate (73-As) and no phosphate, washed and dissolved them, and used extraction with phenol and phenol:chloroform to separate the major macromolecules. The protein fraction at the interface between the organic and aqueous phases had about 10% of the arsenic label but, because the interface material is typically contaminated with liquid from the aqueous phase, this is not good evidence that the cells’ protein contained covalently-bound arsenate in place of phosphorus. About 75% of the arsenic label was in the ‘supernatant ‘fraction. The authors describe this fraction as DNA/RNA, but it also contains most of the small water-soluble molecules of the cell, so its high arsenic content is not evidence that the DNA and RNA contain arsenic in place of phosphorus. The authors use very indirect evidence to argue that the distribution of arsenic mirrors that expected for phosphate, but this argument depends on so many assumptions that it should be ignored.

I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda. I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.

New claims have to provide strong evidence. time will tell if this discovery is actually a discovery. It will be amazing if it is, so I am pulling for it. But the story will need to have much more confirmation before we can be certain.

Arsenate-based DNA: a big idea with big holes

The study published in Science has a number of flaws. In particular, one subtle but critical piece of evidence has been overlooked, and it demonstrates that the DNA in question actually has a phosphate – not an arsenate -backbone.

Wolfe-Simon et al. used a technique called nanoSIMS to analyze elemental concentrations of the agarose gel at the location of the DNA band. They determined that the part of the gel containing DNA also contained both arsenic and phosphorus. But what did they really analyze?

The answer is that the nanoSIMS determined the concentration of arsenic in the gel – not specifically in the DNA.

Finally, there’s a simple experiment that could resolve this debate: analyze the nucleotides directly. Show a mass spectrum of DNA sequences demonstrating that nucleotides contain arsenate instead of phosphate. This is a very simple experiment, and would be quite convincing – but it has not been performed.

Related: It’s not an arsenic-based life formMono Lake bacteria build their DNA using arsenicClose Encounters of the Media Kind

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