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NASA's GFAJ-1 research - Good or Bad Science?

Newsclick Presentation

Dr. Satyajith Rath, scientist at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi and a frequent contributor to Newsclick comments on the claims by scientists in the US about new findings on bacterium associating with an arsenic environment. He also answers questions on the nature of science research today in light of the controversy over the paper by NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon et al. Various video images in this Newsclick presentation are courtesy NASA videos on Youtube.

Rough Transcript

Prabir Purkayastha (PP): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Last December, NASA had a press conference in which they claimed and found some interesting evidence to show that extra terrestrial life is possible. But, they finally came out with was an Arsenic eating bug in lake Mono. The question is did NASA really hype this thing up to support or garner public support even though the science of what was being discussed is still very important. The fact that arsenic will substitute one of those buildings blocks phosphorus in the DNA Chain. Still important result by itself but the hype that NASA put on it wasn't justified of what the results are finally shown. Of course, the scientists have come out with very strongly in large numbers saying that this is extra ordinary chain by claiming that you have DNA chain minus phosphorus substituted by the Arsenic and it doesn't have enough supporting evidence to give for such an extra ordinary claim. In fact, the evidence will be regarded as quite ordinary or even shoddy. This has been a controversy in scientific circles is now eight comments on this has been printed in science the original paper has come out in science and of course, the authors have defended themselves. So this has become a huge controversy. To discuss this issue and also certain other issues how self correctly is the science we have with us Dr. Satyajit Rath from National Institute of Immunology. Satyajit good to have you back with us. Let's look at the basic scientific claim being made that you can substitute Arsenic for Phosphorus in the DNA which was thought to really hold the DNA scaffle up part of that also participation of very important cell functions. How substantive is this claim that is being made. What is it's current status.

Satyajit Rath (SR): There isn't a simple answer. Despite the fact that we apparently have a paper published in a very high profile journal that seems to suggest that there is an answer. Yes, there isn't. When you look at the data, an answer to this question. Why I am saying this? I am saying this because the paper shows data that make it possible that there is Arsenic associated with the DNA of this bacteria. But Arsenic being associated with the DNA of this bacterium and Arsenic being incorporated into the structure of this DNA of bacterium are entirely two different kettles of fish. Also if you take a child and let the child play outside for play outdoor and the child will come back with mud. The mud is associated with child. That doesn't mean the mud has become intrinsic part of child's body structure. In other words, you can always wash the mud off presumably. And really, the paper has many other limitations, this limitation that the nature of the incorporation of Arsenic into the DNA structure has not been clearly demonstrated. As a matter of fact, many of the comments in science are critical of this paper and science has published address this particular question. So the paper if you read, gives you completely different impression from the impression you would get if you read the hype around the paper. The hype around the paper, Felisa I think her name is Wolfe Simon, being on the cover of Glamour magazine, being rated as one of the most influential women scientists something or the other by advertising gimmick or other. All of this would create a completely different impression altogether. The paper itself is far more soberly written. The paper says the following things. They found a bacterium that originated in Mono lake in California which is a high salt containing low nutrient including phosphorus containing lake. Then they have subjected sediment from this lake.. not even a bacterium from this lake, mud from this lake, to high Arsenic low Phosphorus growth in the sediments and after many many generations they have come up with a bacterium that seems to survive on exceedingly low levels of phosphorus and despite exceedingly high levels of Arsenic. To the extent that the protein, the fat and the DNA content of this bacterium seems to contain extra ordinarily low amounts of Phosphorus and seems to be associated with extra ordinarily amounts of Phosphorus. This is the sum and substance of the paper. The only additional point in the paper that's interesting is that if you take away the Arsenic in the growth environment of this bacteria, the bacteria stops growing. They have been using to this argument to say that the bacterium looses Arsenic. But, it is equally possible that the presence of Arsenic allows the bacterium to use phosphorus more efficiently. This very small amounts of Phosphorus that are present in the environment may be used very efficiently by the bacterium in the presence of high levels of Arsenic. There are other bacteria which in fact which do something very similar. So it's quite plausible. This evidence has been used for two separate things. One, to publish a very high profile journal paper. Two, for NASA to issue a press advisory, saying that it is possible that life is far more plastic than we have. Life is pretty plastic we know that. Whether it is as plastic as this or not, you still don't know.

PP: NASA itself almost made it out that they have made a new discovery which is in fact that could even support idea that there are two origins of life on earth. A).As if, this is an independent origin of life. In fact, talked of even shadow biospheres and so on. This was really not something warranted what paper was saying.

SR: Let's get something clear, there is no claim in the paper nor is there any indication in the data that this bacterium is an independently derived form of life for two reasons, two major reasons amongst many. One, that is actually derived from sediments by putting that sediment in an experiment reminiscent of Louis Pasteur. Putting that sediment into growth environment containing progressively more and more Arsenic. Clearly, this is adapting an original bacterium to a very high levels of Arsenic which is not at all indicative to an independent Arsenic dependent origin. Secondly, you take this bacterium and you give it arsenic instead of phosphorus and it grows much better, in the paper itself than it grows in Arsenic. Clearly, this is not a bacterium that can't use phosphorus that uses Arsenic instead. So therefore, the independent origin of life is out of the outer there is no way to suggest that. For anybody, including NASA, authors to be suggesting that is simply being carried away either out of sheer excitement or perhaps more calculated motives with that. PP: You know if we didn't look at it, currently it is also becoming obvious it's high profile aim in the science then then you are going to hype it in public domain. The media was called, the way NASA has framed it's press conference it appears that they have almost discovered extra terrestrial life form. If you hype it in this way, obviously discussion will also take place in public domain. The authors at one point said we don't really respond to blogosphere and so on. But they are quite happy to Felisa Wolfe-Simon went to TED lecture and she made various claims and you have quoted in Glamour magazine they don't seem to have so much problems about responding to public domain as much to the as much to the public criticism about the blogosphere or other modes of criticism by decided by the community itself. SR: Now this I will say in support of the authors. The authors have done everything that an expect scientist is to do when a controversy arises. Number one, they have responded formally to the technical criticisms of their work. That have been conveyed to them by the journal in which they were attempting to publish the paper. They have responded at length with some they have taken honest difference of opinion as their stand, some criticisms they have actually said it is preliminary work if they have to be turn out to be correct as a reservation our claims could not stand scrutiny we will wait and see, we are working on this. Secondly, they have actually made this bacterium available to other workers. In other words, they have not sat on this bacterium and said we have a bacterium and we will not give it to anybody but this is what we have discovered. In best traditions of science, they have made this bacterium available. The bacterium grows slowly, they have small labs, they have problems. They have certainly given bacterium to more than one the independently working group for validation. Eventually, I am sure, we will hear. Let me add a point about NASA's hype. I am sort of understand where they are coming from. All said and done, this is a lab that is in the process of disassembly. Felisa Wolfe Simon herself doesn't have a permanent position in this laboratory. The laboratory doesn't do this kind of work as their primary work. In fact, senior author of the laboratory is from the US Geological survey. NASA just had it's shuttle programme shut down. The shuttle made it's flight a few days ago. In general basic science funding agencies not because of United States but all over the world is feeling pressure by the neoliberal view of science which is science has done to gain something preferably for companies to make. In this atmosphere, it is not surprising I am not suggesting that one should be doing this oneself. But it is understandable if science agencies that do their basic science that doesn't have any immediate implication in the corporate world tend to resort to gimmickry to drum up us a little bit support for their bottom line budget.

PP: Well, in this sense what you are saying today, we are seeing increasingly science really turned as much to popular media as to scientific journals and in fact it is much clear if you do have public profile then funds, grants all these seem to become easier. Effectively we are seeing a certain kind of science taking place today. How science is being done, how science is being communicated with a changing.

SR: Absolutely, it is certainly changing. What's interesting in this case, it is not individual scientist themselves who initiated the hype. One is to expecting individual scientists to hype their findings. I don't go out and say my baby is the ugliest thing in the universe. But that it was NASA, the institutional agents which attempted to do this and that I think reflects the levels of institutional anxiety about basic science funding. I repeat myself, not in the United States but globally. The other interesting thing about this that we might want to keep in mind what does it take to publish a paper in science becomes an operative issue rather than saying what does it take for me to change a prevailing dogma in science to a prevailing concept to a prevailing dogma in theory in science, and that shift to trying to how much weight of evidence I need to put together to change a theory in the minds of my fellow scientists versus how much evidence it does take to publish a paper in high profile journal. I am not sure that is a decidable change in shift. That's a change that has occurred quite radically over the past fifteen years suddenly and we have seen it steadily marching onwards. In a certain sense, it's corporate culture acclimatisation of how science is done.

PP:More the ad world if you will. Coming back to certain point which has now been made. In fact, Carl Zimmer in the New York times article where he says the prevailing views in the science is self correcting. But no leading scientists is going to do the study, to replicate what is being done be Felisa Wolfe Simon and her group because it doesn't have a mileage. The replication studies are really something which gives you academic brownie points, the students who want to do it to blike their career. So the prevailing view is this science is shoddy science it seems to be. There is really no replication studies that is likely to be done. Also, if negative findings are there then no journal will publish it. Therefore, science in that sense doesn't invest in this way or the negative findings gives much more value to positive findings. In this way, in fact, it can perpetuate mistakes and actually create hell of a lot of waste.

SR: As a general formulation, I think you are perfectly right. However, in a curious twists in this particular case that formulation may not quite apply. Let me explain why I am saying that. In the first place, I would not like to leave the impression that I think that this paper that was actually published, the data, the text, the interpretations, conclusions in that paper were shoddy science. I think they were a limited set of findings that were discussed with appropriate caviets.

PP: But Felisa Wolfe-Simon has said Arsenic replace Phosphorus in the DNA chain. That's really a claim that she has been making, her quarters have been making.

SR: I understand, but I am talking about the published paper. For scientists it's the published paper that counts or at least is supposed to count. Whether in reality it does or not is a different can of worms.

PP: She was in a press conference where she said publicly that Arsenic will replace phosphorus.

SR: I understand but in their paper they do not say this. In that sense, I am making a limited point that and remember science that scientists do as being as reprehensible as the scientists themselves quite free. We have many examples of people who are quite terrible people. This is not to suggest that Wolfe Simon is terrible. But we have many examples of terrible people who have done who have done outstanding science and received noble prize and other such hype generating devices in their life. The paper makes modest conclusions but because it was a hyped paper, in fact, replication has going to be done and it's going to have publication value. Now that's because there was hype to the paper. If it had been published in current science, your formulation would apply certainly. There would be no replication, nobody would notice, it would die without a report. Yet a modest set of data, it they were published in high profile journal have actually invited a triggering of a self correction process in science that we would fondly hope is always present. And what I am trying to say is it is not always present. The terrain for triggering for self correction process in science is deeply inadequate.


PP: In fact, a lot of the dead ends in science not really known because the authors, researchers who come across the dead ends after publishing five or six papers, they would stop publishing. The whole lot of people in India for instance would not know why they have stopped publishing would have continued on that path. That part of Zimmer's argument that self correction in science is hampered by the fact, journals doesn't publish replication studies.

SR: It holds good completely and it holds particularly in the world of the natural and clinical sciences. What I mean by that is Biology and Medicine because in Biology and Medicine little more strongly than other disciplines like Chemistry or even Maths. There is a hierarchy of journals. So journals compete with each other on the public perception total poll. Scientists vie with each other to publish in those journals that are high profile. This has come to particularly over past two decades a sort of game the system in which journals are scientists are mutual beneficiaries of a system that creates cliques and networks that perpetuate themselves as mandarins. In such a situation, because this science that do requires a high profile you would prefer to have positive data rather than negative because you are a journal that aspires to be high profile, you would prefer to publish positive data rather than negative and so the vicious cycle continues and that vicious cycle I think therefore, has become a far more prominent feature of the life sciences and medicine research field than it has for example physics and mathematics communty.

PP: Thanks Satyajit I think we have gone over this various facets of this issue the jury out as you said still out of the quality of the research being done particularly I think Arsenic substitution which is being claimed. Though you said it's not been claimed in the paper but certainly it has been claimed all over the place. I think it is something which is open really to serious questions. I think we will come back and have a discussion after hopefully replications studies or negative findings have come up. Thanks.

SR: Thank you.

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