05 December 2010

Science and the media: never a good combination

Not so amazing
Back when the Large Hadron Collider was being built, I remember the media fussing over one thing: black holes. Remember? Remember how the LHC was going to destroy us all, sucking our planet into a void the way planet Vulcan was destroyed by "red matter" in the new Star Trek? And don't get me started on all the "Darwin Was Wrong!" or "Power of Prayer Proved!" or "Politician Speaks Truthfully!" nonsense.

The latest has been the hubub over the "discovery" of "new life". NASA leaked some teasers, saying it was a Really Big Deal that would impact our search for extra-terrestrial life. People thought NASA might have actually found life elsewhere in the solar system. The result was really, really boring: a researcher found a strain of bacteria that could use arsenic to assist with growth. Why is that so boring? Biologist Larry Moran of Sandwalk explains:
For a start, even the title of the paper is misleading. The title says "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus" but all of the data show that there was phosphorus in the media and that the bacteria used it for growth and reproduction. This selected strain of bacteria incorporated more arsenic than non-selected species but it by no means did it replace all phosphate with arsenic. Only a few percent (at most) of the phosphorus atoms in DNA, for example, were replaced by arsenic.
Larry's got a link to a thorough dissection of the paper, and if your nerd quotient is sufficiently high I recommend checking it out. But important thing is this: contrary to the headlines, we didn't discover new life. We found some bacteria that could replace a small amount of phosphate with a small amount of arsenic and still grow. I'm not necessarily that fussy about the study. There are criticisms of it and it may indeed be flawed, but that's not my area of expertise. But NASA is guilty of seriously over-hyping this one, and the media bought it hook, line and sinker. Ho-hum.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.