Evolution in the News - January 2011
by Do-While Jones

Arsenic-loving Bacteria

The need for funding poisons science.

Last month, our “six-page newsletter” was 12 pages long, so we could not address the announcement of what some people thought was an alien life-form discovered on Earth. This misunderstanding was later corrected in the scientific literature; but it didn’t get as much press as the original sensational announcement. In case you missed it, here’s what happened. It all started with a NASA press release on December 2 which contained some exciting claims.

NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it." 1

The discovery of an organism that thrives on otherwise poisonous arsenic broadens our thinking about the possibility of life on other planets, and begs a rewrite of biology textbooks by changing our understanding of how life is formed from its most basic elemental building blocks. 2

This was sensationally reported by popular news media in stories like these:

In a bombshell that upends long-held assumptions about the basic building blocks of life, scientists have discovered a whole new type of creature: a microbe that lives on arsenic. It is unlike every other lifeform on the planet - from the simplest plant to the most complex mammal. 3

The discovery of such odd life in our own backyard is a big boost for those searching the skies for extraterrestrials.

Such research findings prove that "shadow" creatures live in extreme environments previously thought uninhabitable. So here are the provocative questions posed by this finding: Are there other microbes than can do this? And could such creatures evolve into intelligent life, elsewhere? 4

This finding is important because it adds an extra criterion for the search of life on other planets. Historically, astronauts on space missions looked for evidence of life on other planets by seeing if their samples had the basic chemical elements of life.  Arsenic was not one of those elements until this recent discovery.  This means that there may have been samples they found that actually had signs of sustaining life. 5

So, theoretically speaking, life could exist on Venus which is extremely hot and acidic, or, it can exist on Mars where it’s extremely cold and gaseous. 6

It’s easy to see how the general public could get the impression that evidence for extra-terrestrial life had been discovered. Other scientists acted quickly to correct this misconception, but with much less fanfare.

A cryptic announcement from NASA in November said that the agency had important astrobiology news, leading many to speculate that it was set to unveil extraterrestrial life. Instead, during a media conference on 2 December, researchers announced the discovery of ordinary earthly bacteria from Mono Lake in California that seemed to do something extraordinary — use arsenic as a building block for DNA and proteins, in place of the phosphorus relied on by other organisms. But as soon as the unprecedented finding was made public, it drew sharp criticism from the scientific community. Biochemists took to the blogosphere, attacking the methodology and assumptions of the original research and provoking a flurry of articles in the media. Further work will be needed to settle whether the bacteria actually do use arsenic in their biochemistry as opposed to just cleverly thwarting its toxic effects. 7

In December, the bullets were flying furiously over a report about a microbe converted into an arsenic-loving, alien-like species proving that life on other worlds can be very different from Earth’s.

Oh wait. That was the hype. NASA’s clever PR machine leaked just enough information about the announcement for this new study to compete for media attention with celebrity divorces and athlete arrests. … it turned out to be a simple case of an earthly species learning to substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its diet, as Rachel Ehrenberg describes in this issue (Page 5). 8

NASA’s clever PR machine isn’t really competing for attention—it is competing for money! But, the way to get money is to get media attention.

It is no secret that money is tight these days, and budgets are getting cut. Politicians and the general public don’t appreciate the importance of scientific research as much as we think they should. Space exploration, just to find out what’s out there, is very important; but the people who hold the purse strings usually don’t see it that way. They need to know that they are going to get something valuable for their investment.

NASA knows that there are people who desperately want to find evidence of life outside Earth because evolutionists believe that wherever the conditions permit life to exist, life will evolve. As long as people believe that NASA will someday vindicate their evolutionary beliefs, they will keep funding it. NASA is very much aware of this. That’s why their announcement of this strange bacterium in Mono Lake included these admissions:

NASA's Astrobiology Program in Washington contributed funding for the research through its Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute. NASA's Astrobiology Program supports research into the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life on Earth. 9

Among the goals of these programs is determining the evolution of genes, metabolic pathways, and microbial species on Earth in order to understand the potential for life on other worlds. Wolfe-Simon’s discovery represents the first time in the history of biology that an organism has been found to use a different element to build one of its most basic structures. 10

The need to tie these arsenic-loving bacteria to evolution in order to get money, poisoned the way this discovery was reported.

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1 NASA, 2 December 2010, “NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical”, http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/astrobiology_toxic_chemical.html
2 NASA, 2 December 2010, “Get Your Biology Textbook...and an Eraser!”, http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/articles/thriving-on-arsenic/
3 The Huffington Post, December 2, 2010, “NASA Discovers New Life: Arsenic Bacteria With DNA Completely Alien To What We Know”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/02/nasa-new-life-arsenic-bacteria_n_791094.html
4 MercuryNews.com, 2 December 2010, “NASA: Arsenic-eating bacteria suggests extraterrestrial life possible”, http://www.mercurynews.com/san-mateo-county/ci_16763468?nclick_check=1
5 AllMediaNY.com, 5 December 2010, “Arsenic-Based Bacteria: Implications and Why It's Important”, http://www.allmediany.com/details_news_article.php?news_artid=420
6 ibid.
7 Nature, 23/30 December 2010, “Arsenic-based life was discovered. Or not.”, page 1016, http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101222/full/4681014a.html
8 Science News, 1 January 2011, “Even with poisonous hype, some science can survive”, page 2
9 NASA, 2 December 2010, Discovery of “Arsenic-bug" Expands Definition of Life”, http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2010/02dec_monolake/
10 NASA, 2 December 2010, “Get Your Biology Textbook...and an Eraser!”, http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/articles/thriving-on-arsenic/