After (arsenic) life: Great profile of Felisa Wolfe-Simon

In early 2011, Felisa Wolfe-Simon published a scientific paper purporting to show evidence that bacteria from California's Mono Lake could, if pressed, live without the essential element phosphorous, and use arsenic, instead.

The story was wildly misconstrued in the press. (No, nobody ever found alien life happening naturally in Lake Mono.) And the evidence and methodology of Wolfe-Simon's research was roundly trounced, not just in academic journals, but also in blogs.

And that's all left Wolfe-Simon in a very weird position. She's certainly not the first scientist to publish a high-profile paper that other researchers tore to shreds. But, because the "arsenic life" story was so high-profile, she's now worried her career might be over. Is that fair? In Popular Science, Tom Clynes presents a nuanced profile of Felisa Wolfe-Simon that doesn't really answer that question definitively. Frankly, there probably isn't a really clear black/white answer out there. But Clynes does do a really good job of introducing us to Wolfe-Simon as a person, and her story exposes flaws in the peer-review process and the traditional avenues of scientific debate, indicts the media and PR professionals for creating the very sensational story that led to such a harsh response, and shows what can happen when a scientist is unprepared to deal with the public presentation of their own work.

In other words, this story is about lots of people making mistakes, including, but not limited to, Felisa Wolfe-Simon.

In June, Science reported that Wolfe-Simon had left Oremland’s USGS laboratory to look for a location with better molecular and genetic research facilities. “Actually,” Wolfe-Simon says, “I didn’t leave out of choice. Ron basically evicted me from the group. It was a political decision on his part that I don’t understand, and I didn’t see it coming.” Although she received a NASA fellowship in 2010 that provides support through 2013, she is still seeking a new home for her work.

I find it hard not to feel sympathy for her. In a matter of weeks she was catapulted to fame, then singled out and assaulted with professional and personal criticism, some of which resulted from missteps beyond her control. Wolfe-Simon is an early-career researcher in a field dominated by older men. Few scientists, no matter how established, would have the skills to navigate the situation that she found herself in. What made the level of criticism so extraordinary is that the paper, in itself, is not so flawed that it should not have been published. The argument was compelling, the conclusions were measured, the data was thorough, and the paper made it through the same peer-review process as other articles in Science.

It will take a few years to better answer the questions surrounding GFAJ-1. In the meantime, Benner—who says he would be “more than astonished” if arsenic replaces phosphorus in any genetically relevant molecule in GFAJ-1—says Wolfe-Simon’s hypothesis is ultimately useful if it motivates people to look in new places and ask bigger questions.

Wolfe-Simon says the paper’s publicity attracted new collaborators who she wouldn’t have otherwise met, some of whom are already analyzing GFAJ-1. And her fame has played out in surprising ways. Recently, her husband, Jonathan, an engineer, was speaking with a colleague who asked if he happened to be married to Felisa Wolfe-Simon. When he said yes, the colleague said, “My seven-year-old daughter dressed up as Felisa for her school’s science day!” The girl wore a sun hat, with her pants rolled up and flip-flops on her feet, dressed for a day wading the waters of Mono Lake in search of bacteria.

Image: Mono Lake, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kidsloveanimals's photostream


  1. I’m sorry, but while I’m sure her article was wildly misconstrued and she’s not responsible for the stupid claims other people and especially laypeople made in response to it, she is responsible for the extraordinary and unsupported claims made in her own paper. To wit, she said that she believed arsenic had replaced phosphorous in the DNA backbone in her arsenic-adapted and arsenic-saturated bacteria, and an impromptu peanut gallery of scientists and informed readers was able to demonstrate within hours that she simply hadn’t done the sort of experiments required to validate such a claim, and chemists pointed out that while the valence of arsenic is correct to replace phosphorous the differing bond lengths should have made it obvious that her claim was utterly implausible. Actual discrediting of the claim (rather than merely pointing out that it was never proven) will take longer, but at this point I think it’s widely predicted that her claims will be debunked. At that point it does indeed seem likely her career is over.

    Mind you, Prof. Wolfe-Simon is not the only culprit here. The Tom Clynes article you quote point out that her manuscript passed the peer review process – a result that was, in effect, unfair to Prof. Wolfe-Simon, no matter how pleased she was with it at the time. There is a cliche that says “Just because it’s published in Science doesn’t mean it’s not true”‘ this cliche exists because Science in particular (but not Science alone) has made something of a practice of publishing weakly supported papers they feel with attract attention and provoke discussion, especially those that do both in the lay media (see also Life On Mars, ~1997). A peer review process that wasn’t skewed towards encouraging publication of this thought-provoking but deeply flawed manuscript (to wit, one that included a knowledgeable and skeptical chemist or biochemist) would have saved Prof. Wolfe-Simon enormous embarrassment. Her resulting work would have been far stronger when it was published, and would have drawn more attention to the fascinating biology of these extremophilic bacteria, rather than misdirecting attention to a likely erroneous conclusion. But that paper would never have been published in Science, and the general public would never have noticed it.

    Please note also that while you express concern that the likely debunking of Prof. Wolfe-Simon’s claims, and the likely implosion of her career, will lead to work of the sort she was pursuing being similarly damaged, this is in fact extremely unlikely. Extremophiles like her arsenic-adapted bacteria are an area of great interest to a large number of people, both in the academic and for-profit realms. The appearance of her paper was not necessary to motivate people to look in such places, and extremophiles will continue to be of great interest regardless of what happens to Prof. Wolfe-Simon.

    1. Is there something you know about Prof. Wolfe-Simon that the rest of us don’t? Why make such an extreme assertion that that one scientist’s career will be “over” because they published a wrong paper, when this happens not at all infrequently (see, history of medical sciences)? How is this attitude not complicit in creating a culture that fears failure?

      The overall point of this post is about the people involved, and the systematic failures that led to the public snafu. To be content with only that the science will continue “regardless of what happens to Prof. Wolfe-Simon” denies that individual her basic dignity, and more generally, marginalizes the human experience of the scientific process.

      1. She didn’t publish a wrong paper; she published a bad paper. There’s a difference. Preliminary indications that their results might lead a researcher to make extraordinary claims would normally induce them to take great care, to consider other hypotheses and what proofs might be possible and desirable. In this case, it might have lead Prof. Wolfe-Simon to talk to chemists about whether her theory was even physically possible. Prof. Wolfe-Simon did none of these things; instead, she published a manuscript that was widely pronounced dead before the post office had even finished delivering the print edition. That’s not an unfortunately mistaken conclusion, that’s a grievous error of judgment, and it’s one she’ll have an awfully hard time escaping. You ask whether we should fear “a culture that fears failure” as if she bore no culpability here, as if her conclusions happened to be mistaken despite her having done all that could reasonably be expected of her. This was absolutely not the case.

        To be sure, the editor at Science who oversaw the review of her paper should face the consequences of their poor judgment. The people that did peer review the paper should at least feel a private shame, assuming they in fact approved it (Science is a bit notorious for ignoring peer reviewers’ verdicts when it wishes to). There’s plenty of blame to go around – but I don’t see why you’d absolve her of it.

        1. “There’s plenty of blame to go around – but I don’t see why you’d absolve her of it.”
          Calf isn’t “absolving” Wolfe-Simon of anything in particular.  “Absolve” is your word.  (Of course, informal moralistic rhetoric doesn’t require a peer review process.  How convenient for you!)

  2. As quoted in one of the official responses in Science (I forget which one, my apologies), “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – Carl Sagan. 

    Also, Felisa Wolf-Simon did not back away from her far-reaching conclusions despite some very well substantiated criticisms. I think she should have taken the opportunity to re-evaluate what claims she was willing to defend. 

  3. Decades ago, an American biologist named Barry Commoner used traces of Strontium 90 from children’s teeth (collected and sent to him by dentists all over the country) to map fallout patterns in the U.S. that resulted from above-ground nuclear testing.  Commoner’s work was controversial, but ultimately very important to the eventual cessation of above-ground testing. 

    Strontium is immediately below Calcium in the second column of the periodic table of elements, and it is a fact that chemical elements which tend to form compounds with elements in a column of the periodic table tend to form similar compounds, especially organic ones, with other elements in the same column.

    Arsenic similarly being immediately below Phosphorus in the fifteenth periodic table, it is not unlikely that organisms would similarly form compounds by substituting Arsenic for Phosphorus in much the same way that the human body forms compounds in teeth by substituting Strontium 90 for Calcium.

    Just sayin’…

  4. lostinutah-

    You should really read some of the official critiques of the paper. You are way oversimplifying a very complicated scenario, and really have no basis for your claim that “it is not unlikely that organisms would similarly form compounds by substituting Arsenic for Phosphorus.”

  5. What has irritated me about this whole fiasco from the start is that they immediately went on national television with their results, instead of waiting for other scientists to mull over their publication and repeat the experiments to verify them. Yes, many times scientific research progresses by leaps and bounds due to the courage and insight of creative thinkers…but it also requires slow-poke verification in the hands of unbiased researchers who are not funded by, in this case, NASA. I hope the story ends on an exciting note, i.e, that these little bugs can live off of arsenic. It would be interesting. However, I doubt Wolfe’s career is over.

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