What could arsenic bacteria teach us about life?
- 695 Downloads
In this paper, I discuss the recent discovery of alleged arsenic bacteria in Mono Lake, California, and the ensuing debate in the scientific community about the validity and significance of these results. By situating this case in the broader context of projects that search for anomalous life forms, I examine the methodology and upshots of challenging biochemical constraints on living things. I distinguish between a narrower and a broader sense in which we might challenge or change our knowledge of life as the result of such a project, and discuss two different kinds of projects that differ in their potential to overhaul our knowledge of life. I argue that the arsenic bacteria case, while potentially illuminating, is the kind of constraint-challenging project that could not—in spite of what was said when it was presented to the public—change our knowledge of life in the deeper sense.
KeywordsArsenic bacteria Life Weird life Biochemical constraints Origin of life
Many thanks to Michael Weisberg, Mark Bedau, Alistair Isaac, two anonymous reviewers, and the audiences at the 2011 conferences of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology and the European Philosophy of Science Association for valuable comments and feedback. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE-0822.
- Brown D, Weselby C (2010) NASA-funded research discovers life built with toxic chemical. 2 December 2010. http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/astrobiology_toxic_chemical.html. Accessed June 2011
- Cleland C (2007) Epistemological issues in the study of microbial life: alternative terranbiospheres? Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci 38:847–861Google Scholar
- Cleland CE (2011) Life without definitions. Synthese 185:125–144Google Scholar
- Davies PCW, Lineweaver CH (2005) Finding a second sample of life on Earth. Astrobiology 5:154–163Google Scholar
- Hayden EC (2012) Study challenges existence of arsenic-based life. Nature. doi: 10.1038/Nature.2012.9861
- Hughes M (2002) Arsenic toxicity and potential mechanisms of action. Toxicol Lett 133:1–16Google Scholar
- Kastnelson A (2010) Microbe gets toxic response. Nature 468:741Google Scholar
- Kaufman M (2012) Journal retreats from controversial arsenic paper. The Washington Post, 9 July 2012. Available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/journal-retreats-from-controversial-arsenic-paper/2012/07/08/gJQAFQb7WW_story.html?wpisrc=emailtoafriend. Accessed Aug 2012
- Knowles F, Benson A (1983) The biochemistry of arsenic. Trends Biochem Sci 8(5):178–180Google Scholar
- Krinsley D, Dorn R (2009) Astrobiological implications of rock varnish in Tibet. Astrobiology 9(6):551–562Google Scholar
- Northup DE, Snider JR, Spilde MN, Porter ML, van de Kamp JL, Boston PJ, Nyberg AM, Bargar JR (2010) Diversity of rock varnish bacterial communities from Black Canyon, New Mexico. J Geophys Res 115:602007Google Scholar
- Rasmussen S, Bedau MA, Chen L, Deamer D, Krakauer DC, Packard N, Stadler PF (2009) Protocells: bridging nonliving and living matter. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
- Redfield RJ (2010) Arsenic-associated bacteria (NASA’s claims). Web commentary, available online at http://rrresearch.blogspot.com/2010/12/arsenic-associated-bacteria-nasas.html. Accessed Sept 2011
- Rosen B, Ajees A, McDermott T (2011) Life and death with arsenic. BioEssays 33:350–357Google Scholar
- Sun M, Vavricka CJ, Zhu B (2011) What job can a bug give? A controversy over the arsenic-guzzling bacterium cultured by NASA. Protein CellGoogle Scholar
- Tawfik DS, Viola RE (2011) Arsenate replacing phosphate: alternative life chemistries and ion promiscuity. Biochemistry 50:1128–1134Google Scholar
- Uwins P, Webb R (1998) Novel nano-organisms from Australian sandstones. Am Mineral 83:1541–1550Google Scholar
- Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PCW et al (2011) Response to comments on “a bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus”. Science 332:1149-jGoogle Scholar