Comment on “Arsenic instead of Phosphorus: the extreme adaptation of living creatures.”

Despite the heavy critique the authors of a paper that one of Mario’s most recent blog entries referred to currently face (see http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6012/1734.summary) and irrespective of the public attention this discovery receives (I usually mistrust what the public’s attention attracts most), I really enjoyed hearing about this new paper and the way the authors carried out science. It encouraged me in my notion that considerate findings can still be revealed by having clear and uncomplicated ideas and by doing basic and (relatively) simple experiments. Usually when people hear the word “science”, they think of formula, extremely complicated theories, statistics and the like which only experts or nerds can understand. And I have to admit: very often when I scan through the scientific literature, I find it hard not to be intimidated by the often strangely sounding titles. And yes, very often you just have to be a specialized specialist to understand the sub-specificities of a tiny speciality that constitutes a small part of a certain discipline to take the most out of a discovery and to understand its consequences. But the biggest attention is usually paid to discoveries that are more generally comprehensible (even if it is only because of mentioning the possibility of extraterrestial life….). And not rarely, they are also the ones that have the power to initiate so called paradigm changes (a term introduced by the American philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn).

Another reason why I liked that paper was the methodology behind, it seems to follow the logics of the “creative leap” article, brilliantly brought forward by Davide: someone had an idea by challenging the concept of a limited amounts of elements constituting all living things on earth and decided to confront it with reality. After having found a bacterial strain that could survive in the presence of high concentrations of Arsen, they had a closer look to see if it actually used this chemical compound to integrate it into its cellular constituents. And when they found some evidence that it did, they further tried to explain the fact why a bacterium would rather use Arsenate than phosphate since the former is much less stable than the latter by referring to the environmental conditions these bacteria were found in and in which a less stable chemical molecule might be more advantageous to drive fundamental cellular reactions (see the video Mario put in). Of course, since this discovery is so new and comes so surprisingly, many questions still remain: were the techniques used the right ones? Were the questions the authors asked fully answered by the experiments they carried out? What other tests need to be included? Etc. etc. I think it’s absolutely right to ask these questions, in the end that’s what science is all about. And maybe future tests will prove the authors wrong. Having said that, I still think this paper was interesting in so many ways, for me the most attractive aspect was the methodology and the way science was done and lived! Just look into the eyes of the passionate first author (see video) and the way she promotes her discovery and you know that everything they have done was right, despite the possibility that they were completely wrong!

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