And the media sensationalizes science again

I came home to a flurry of emails, tweets, and blog posts about NASA’s big announcement. I was momentarily floored when I saw headlines like this:

“NASA Finds New Life” – Gizmodo

“NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical” – The Richard Dawkins Foundation

“Bacteria first species observed to use arsenic-laced DNA backbone” – Ars Technica

Though upon actually reading about the discovery, the most accurate title came from Boing Boing: Weird life form on Earth – kind of, maybe.

Look, it’s an exciting discovery, but everyone is over-hyping it. This bacteria is not an arsenic-based life form in the sense that we are carbon-based life forms. It does not use arsenic as a source of fuel. It does not exclusively build its DNA backbone using arsenic. It doesn’t even really like to do that at all in the wild – it incorporates arsenic under laboratory conditions that force even higher concentrations of arsenic upon it. It is not a different type of life that arose separately from phosphate-using lifeforms.

What it is is an excellent example of evolution. While coming from a phosphate-using ancestor, this bacteria has somehow adapted to an extreme environment that would kill most other organisms. I’m more interested in how it avoids death by this toxin than the fact that it incorporates a molecule extremely similar to phosphate into its DNA. PZ has a more thorough scientific breakdown over at Pharyngula.

Way to go, shoddy science reporting. Creationists are probably wetting themselves over this “new life form,” ready to tell biologists how it could have only been designed. I mean, just look at how this redditor is reacting to your sensationalism:

Is it ok that I’m already discriminating against arsenic based life forms because they are fundamentally different than me? Bunch of arses, they are.

Sigh. Well, at least I don’t have a whole new DNA structure to memorize. Getting a PhD in Genomics was already hard enough.


  1. WingedBeast says

    As a general geek, but not a scientist, the coolness factor here is that life in general is a little more flexible than we once thought.And, seriously, what we think about life is that da-amn it springs up everywhere it can. Now it can spring up in a sliver of a percentage point more places in a universe with more stars in it than individual moments of “cool” that this discovery will inspire.Life from other worlds, someday we will meet it. I hope it tastes good.

  2. BunyipAndler says

    Thanks for the clarification; I feel silly for not realizing this was only in a laboratory setting.Also, you used the wrong form of “it’s” in the third paragraph: “…build it’s DNA backbone…”.

  3. mcbender says

    This is honestly a pretty cool discovery, I think (as a non-biologist, mind), but the level of overhyping and exaggeration it’s been getting is absurd.I’m reminded of the ridiculus hype about [i]Darwinius masillae[/i] or whatever it was called, as well.Don’t you just love science journalism…

  4. WingedBeast says

    Not all the life will be loaded with arsenic. I’m generally hoping it’ll be more loaded with fatty tissue and salt to be good for roasting.Sweet&sour based lifeforms. That would be nice.

  5. EdenBunny says

    Bad news…The odds that we will meet life forms that are not poisonous to us are much slimmer than the odds that we will meet life forms that are poisonous to us. Given that we have just recently entered the information age and are already in danger of wiping ourselves out, it is unlikely that we will ever get to travel far from earth on our own. The implication of this is that any alien life forms we meet will have landed here using technology far beyond our own. If anyone is likely to get eaten, it is us. Don’t worry about that, though; we are as likely to be poisonous to them as they are to be poisonous to us. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily likely to stop them from harvesting human brains and nerve endings as parts for their carbon based computers.

  6. WingedBeast says

    Okay, okay, I know the science. I know the odds are that we’re most likely going to find a being that doesn’t even use the same shape of DNA, and that it’ll probably not really be DNA.But, let me have my fantasy of a fine meal of Romulan Ale (Star Trek), Spoo (Babylon 5), a light food-tube (Farscape), and a main course of a creature genetically engineered to want to humainly kill itself for food (Hitchhiker’s Guide).

  7. EdenBunny says

    Okay, but I’m sticking with Mutton Vindaloo (Red Dwarf). But I’ll just use a microwave to cook it, not a DNA modifier.

  8. WingedBeast says

    That’s okay. You can join me after for a spot of fun blowing up planets or watching the dinosaurs hatch at the zoo.

  9. EdenBunny says

    …Sorry, can’t make it. Forgot to deposit the penny. (If I deposit it today, I’ll still be a couple years compound interest shy. That might not seem like much at the time of deposit, but by the end of the universe, it will be a considerable sum.)(…I could deposit a few hundredths of a penny extra today to cover the difference, but I absolutely refuse to pay more than everybody else.)

  10. WingedBeast says

    Eh, I’m told you can get the same kind of show by filling an ebony bathtub with very fine white sand, video-taping the sand going down the hole, and playing the video in reverse.The only fun part is that the Messiah returns about two seconds before the entire universe ends.

  11. John Small Berries says

    At least Gizmodo changed their lead sentence, which (when I read it yesterday) claimed that the “new life form” didn’t share any of the building blocks of all other life on Earth.

  12. JM says

    There was nary a mention of “lab” or “experiment” in my local newspaper article. I may have to write to the editor to complain.

  13. says

    And this is how the horror movie starts…. and it ends with the world covered in a red-slime of arsenic bacteria. Damn scientists always making stuff that will end the world.

  14. Gus Gatto says

    This bacterium or these bacteria – but you can’t swap demonstrative adjectives willy nilly without taking number(s) into account. It (the species) is a remarkable bacterium.Gus Gatto

  15. says

    Well to be fair, we always knew, theoretically at least, that it was possible to find life capable of substituting related atoms, particles, molecules etc. for another. Up till now though we hadn’t really seen any.Mind you I think we’ve discovered something even more important; NASA actually does do work, sort of.

  16. says

    I agree, the media are twats, and they’ll sensationalize anything like a bad Michael Bay movie. (that’s a trick question…there are no GOOD Michael Bay movies). But I think you’ll agree that it was actually NASA that kicked off the sensationalism:…I mean, come the fuck on NASA. Yes, it’s cool science. But they basically torpedoed the announcement of the findings with a horribly misleading press release. This time the problem was at the source, not just the media.

Leave a Reply