Now, criticisms are appearing in the peer-reviewed literature, like this one by Rosen and colleagues. The analysis is quite a helpful one in many ways, providing good background information on things like how cells can use arsenate (arsenolipids instead of phospholipids, for instance).
Their summary is that there is no “fatal flaw” in the paper that rules out the possibility of bacteria using arsenic (“no positive data” is how they put it) and that there needs to be more research.
Unfortunately, if you’re hoping to see how they accommodate criticisms from other researchers that some argued disproved the notion of arsenic being used in DNA, you’ll be disappointed. This paper not only tries its best to ignore the widespread commentary about the original paper on the blogosphere, it dismisses it. Here’s all they say:
This study has generated significant commentary, often as anonymous electronic communications.
This conflicts with my impression, which was that almost all of the commentary was signed. There was Rosie Redfield and Alex Bradley. Carl Zimmer got a dozen researchers to comment, all with their names in place. There was so much written in the blogosphere about arsenic life, that some of the commentary was pseudonymous (which, as many emphatically point out, is different than being anonymous). But the most prominent critics of the Wolfe-Simon and company paper were certainly not anonymous.
Writing an entire article evaluating the arsenic life paper without any references to what happened on blogs is both disingenuous and bad scholarship. To compress all that online commentary into a single one-liner borders on the unethical, because it so profoundly distorts the events following the release of the paper.
If there had not been such a public thrashing of ideas about this paper online, I doubt a journal have even considered publishing this review of the arsenic life paper (which still hasn’t been officially published yet). So the authors and editor take advantage of the controversy to publish a review, all the while tut-tutting and wagging their fingers at those nasty anonymous bloggers and refusing to do anything but give the most oblique acknowledgment of their role.
I imagine that Wolfe-Simon and some press people at NASA might be happy, though, since this article reinforces the rigid conventions that they promoted in the early days following the release of the paper. But it’s long past time those conventions change.
Additional: Only a few hours after I wrote this, I learned of another short paper commenting on arsenic life that appeared in January. Silver and Phung do not look upon the internet all favourably, referring to “the magic and nonsense that floods cyberspace.” But they do note the online criticisms and provide multiple links to them, mainly, but not exclusively, from new gathering organizations.
More additional: The authors have responded. This has generated my own follow-up post.
Rosen BP, Ajees AA, McDermott TR. 2011. Life and death with arsenic. BioEssays: in press. 10.1002/bies.201100012. (DOI link may not be working yet; try http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bies.201100012/abstract if it isn’t.)
Silver S, Phung L. 2011. Novel expansion of living chemistry or just a serious mistake? FEMS Microbiology Letters 315(2): 79-80. DOI: 10.1111/j.1574-6968.2010.02202.x
Wolfe-Simon F, Blum J, Kulp T, Gordon G, Hoeft S, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz J, Webb S, Weber P, Davies P, Anbar A, & Oremland R. 2010. A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258
Hat tip to Jonathan Eisen for the Silver and Phung paper.