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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 5, 2012

The Redfield Paper Is Out (And So Are Arsenic Bacteria, It Seems)

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Posted by Derek

Via Curious Wavefunction comes the news that Rosie Redfield and her lab have their paper coming out in Science refuting the "arsenic bacteria" results. It should be out on the journal's web site shortly, but is available at Arxiv beforehand.

I've been following Redfield's blogged results over the last few months, on and off, so the conclusions of this manuscript will not come as a surprise. She has been unable - completely unable - to substantiate the original claims of arsenate-driven growth and incorporation into biomolecules. Given the extraordinary nature of the original paper, the ball is now back in Wolfe-Simon et al.'s court. The default setting is that claims like those probably aren't real, and they need to be able to stand up to solid scrutiny.

I'll be very interested to see how this plays out. The authors of the original paper have been quite firm about only responding to criticism that's appeared in the official scientific literature, and have made remarks about how they're not going to deal with "website experiments" until they're published. Well, published they are, and in the same big journal as the original paper. What now?

I think their only hope is to advance specific, testable reasons why Redfield's results are incorrect. If it gets down to "Well, we get these results, and we don't see why you don't", and never advances from there, then the amazing results are almost certainly wrong. The world as we know it wins the tiebreakers in science.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life As We (Don't) Know It


1. PPedroso on June 5, 2012 7:27 AM writes...

This is great and exciting science! :)

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2. leftscienceawhileago on June 5, 2012 9:06 AM writes...

Rosie's study compels the original authors to submit a sample of DNA or RNA (they are, after all, trying to crystallize the GFAJ1 ribosome) to the same LCMS analysis.

This would be pretty painless, and clearly eliminate any uncertainty of the conclusion with respect to the slightly different growth conditions.

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3. pete on June 5, 2012 10:28 AM writes...

@2 leftsci
Ah, but as I understand it, the arseno-DNA is a lot more fragile than its phosphate-based cousin, giving the Wolfe-Simon lab an out:

"I'm afraid we can't ship you any for fear of damage while in transport"

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4. newnickname on June 5, 2012 10:44 AM writes...

How about the old, "Our cultures have mutated to the point that they no longer produce the same arseno-DNA that the original isolates produced for us."

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5. Vince on June 5, 2012 2:25 PM writes...

Derek said: The world as we know it wins the tiebreakers in science.

What a great comment which is fundamentally so very true. Unfortunately, my feeling is the probability of this issue slowly fading away under a scenario of "we got this, you got that" is high. The initial paper achieved much of what my cynical side believes to be their desire: wide coverage, highly visible headline. In the day and age of every publication being manipulated for maximum effect in the Yahoo! and Atlantic reader populations by staffed PR department's -- I have low expectations.

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6. Hap on June 5, 2012 5:32 PM writes...

3: If they have to use the "fragile DNA" excuse, though, they're hosed. Fragile DNA is as useful to an organism as a porcelain hammer - so if it's so fragile that it can't be manipulated, it's probably unnecessary to the organism, and either an artifact or nonexistent.

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7. Hap on June 5, 2012 5:40 PM writes...

Crystallizing the arsenate-substituted ribosome seems like a delay - it will probably take forever, and its failure doesn't reflect much on the presence or absence of arsenate in DNA. It seems like there are lots of other ideas for better, more conclusive, and less resource-intensive experiments on the hypothesis (and which would help if you decided that crystallizing the arsenated ribosome was a good idea).

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8. eugene on June 5, 2012 11:22 PM writes...

Vince: "The initial paper achieved much of what my cynical side believes to be their desire: wide coverage, highly visible headline."

Well, Wolfe-Simon doesn't have a job at that institute anymore and she probably won't get hired as a PI at any institute anytime soon (or ever...) thanks to all this, so the whole affair was a failure from the point of view of securing her a position as a new PI.

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9. chirality on June 6, 2012 2:03 PM writes...

Not a moment too soon. This is Science's shot at redemption after having published the original paper.

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