On December 2, 2010, NASA called a press conference to trumpet a discovery that the agency said would “impact the search for extraterrestrial life.” A team of scientists led by microbiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon took the stage and described a new bacterium, discovered in a salty lake, that incorporates the normally toxic element arsenic into its DNA. Finding a living thing whose fundamental chemistry is unlike that of any other known organism hinted at different kinds of biology that could take hold on faraway worlds. It was almost like finding alien life on Earth.
But once the excitement subsided and people examined the study closely, a nasty backlash ensued. “We found that evidence in the paper for such an extreme claim was really very weak,” says microbiologist Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia. “It was such a slap in the face for those who do good science.” Traditionally, researchers would resolve such a dispute by repeating the experiment in question and publishing their results in a respected journal after months of stringent peer review. Instead, Redfield took to the blogosphere, where she began publishing preliminary research refuting Wolfe-Simon’s claim, adding a second controversy to the first. “Most scientists are uncomfortable with this way of working,” Redfield says. “I wanted to use this as a high-profile example of doing science openly.”
But open science does not necessarily mean better or faster science. Redfield is still working on reproducing Wolfe-Simon’s experiment, so she has a way to go before she has enough evidence to confirm or refute the original study. Even if Redfield’s answer comes before a peer-reviewed follow-up appears, many scientists will not make up their minds until they see the tried-and-true scientific method play out.
Wolfe-Simon, meanwhile, is staying traditional. Last June, after enduring six months of online attacks, her team finally published a defense of its work in Science.