Arsenic-based life critiques published. How #arseniclife changed science.

The state of the universe.
May 27 2011 4:50 PM

The Discovery of Arsenic-Based Twitter

How #arseniclife changed science.

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The discussion spread into the websites of other scientific journals, even though Science had still not yet formally published the original paper in print. At ACS Chemical Biology, Mostafa Fekry of the University of Missouri and his colleagues explained how the bonds in an arsenic-based DNA molecule would fall apart in a fraction of a second. * Simon Silver and Le Phung of the University of Illinois published a scathing critique in the journal FEMS Microbiology Letters, calling the results "science fiction."

There was no bright line dividing what these scientists wrote in scientific journals and what turned up in other forms of online communication. Earlier this week, Silver went to the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology in New Orleans to explain why he thought the arsenic paper was so flawed. Several scientists in the audience shared his talk with their followers in a series of tweets, such as "Silver - the 1 experiment to run would of been - acid hydrolysis of the DNA and radio labelled arsenic - if it was in the DNA it would show!" The tweets could use some copy-editing and context, but they were effective for spreading the word.

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There were two groups of people glaringly absent from this online discussion. One group included the supporters of the arsenic researchers. I have found only one third-party defense of the work online, in a review in the journal Bioessays. The other group comprises the authors of the paper themselves. When I asked them to comment for my previous Slate article on the controversy, they said they would only do so in a peer-reviewed journal. Yet they did not actually take a vow of silence. Co-author Ronald Oremland participated in another press conference at the American Geophysical Union in December, where he declared, "I don't want to get involved in what can end up in a Jerry Springer situation, with people throwing chairs."

Both NASA and the authors tried to play the bloggers-in-their-pajamas card, but it was a losing hand. For one thing, the people who were talking on blogs and Twitter were not in their pajamas. Many of them were in lab coats. They were practicing scientists who wanted to have an open debate.  For another, the arsenic scientists didn't exactly flee the media spotlight. The lead author, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, delivered a high-profile TED lecture in March. Three months later, she appeared in a full-page profile in the June issue of Glamour entitled, "This Rising Star's Four Rules For You."

The formal response today in Science marks the first time that Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues have directly responded to their critics, rather than having a one-way conversation. But this exchange was immediately folded into the bloggy discussion online. Rosie Redfield, a University of British Columbia microbiologist who raised the first red flag about the arsenic paper last fall and who wrote one of the comments published today in Science, immediately had this to say on her blog:

"The authors don't report any new experiments.  Most of their responses take the form of 'our interpretation could be correct on this point if...'.  In many cases there is indeed a small possibility that it could, but there are so many of these points of interpretation, each with only a very small probability of being correct, that I don't think anyone will find the arguments convincing."

Redfield and her colleagues are starting to carry out a new way of doing science, known as post-publication peer review. Rather than leaving the evaluation of new studies to a few anonymous scientists, researchers now debate the merit of papers after they have been published. The collective decision they come to stays open to revision.

Post-publication peer review—and open science in general—is attracting a growing number of followers in the scientific community. But some critics have argued that it's been more successful in theory than in practice.  The #arseniclife affair is one of the first cases in which the scientific community openly vetted a high-profile paper, and influenced how the public at large thought about it.

In her blog post this morning, Redfield wrote that Wolf-Simon and her colleagues supplied some more details about their experiment in their formal response that weren't in the original paper. She planned to address those details in a post later in the day. The conversation, in other words, goes on.

Correction, May 31, 2011: This article originally misidentified the publication ACS Chemical Biology as ASC Chemical Biology. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Carl Zimmer writes the weekly Matter column for the New York Times. His most recent book is Evolution: Making Sense of Life, co-authored with Douglas Emlen.