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Outspoken B.C. microbiologist named top science newsmaker

12/23/2011 01:21 EST | Updated 02/22/2012 05:12 EST

A Canadian biologist has been named as one of "10 people who mattered this year" by the science journal Nature for kicking off a critical public scientific discussion about a highly publicized NASA study on a possible new form of life.

Rosie Redfield "appeared like a shot out of the blogosphere: a wild-haired Canadian microbiologist with a propensity to say what was on her mind," said a Nature article describing why she was named to the list.

NASA held a news conference in December 2010 announcing that its researchers, led by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, had discovered a strain of bacteria that appeared able to use arsenic — an element that is usually toxic to living things — as a building block for DNA. The arsenic appeared to replace phosphorus, which is normally an essential element for life. If that were the case, it would open new possibilities for life forms that have a chemistry very different from that of life as we know it.

The findings were published in Science, a prominent journal where scientists often first try to publish what they consider to be their most significant research.

"Initially, everybody said, 'Gee whiz, golly gosh, that's amazing, if it's true.' And initially, nobody actually read the research paper carefully," Redfield recalled this week in an interview with the CBC Vancouver radio show On the Coast.

But she decided to do just that — give the paper a careful read.

"It was really sloppy, rushed work with little care for the chemical purity of the materials they were using. They didn't purify the DNA properly. They jumped to all kinds of conclusions and ignored a whole bunch of red flags," Redfield said.

Redfield wrote a long post on her blog, RRResearch, outlining her concerns. The link spread across the internet, garnering tens of thousands of hits and dozens of comments from other scientists.

"Redfield kicked off a frenzy of criticism of the 'arsenic-life' paper in the blogosphere and the media," said the Nature article, which went on to add that many other scientists "now believe that the conclusions of Wolfe-Simon and her team were incorrect because the researchers didn't rule out the possibility that their cultures were contaminated with phosphorus."

Science responded in May by publishing eight articles, including one by Redfield, questioning Wolfe-Simon's paper.

Redfield remains critical of the fact that the paper was published in Science in the first place, blaming both the co-authors of the paper and the anonymous peer reviewers for missing the "mistakes."

While she does think peer review should remain anonymous, because it gives scientists more leeway to speak freely, "in this case, we think they weren't critical enough."

In the past few months, Redfield has begun trying to reproduce Wolfe-Simon's results by doing a "very, very simple experiment" that involves growing the special strain of bacteria with very little phosphorus and lots of arsenic and then sending it for analysis. She has documented the whole process on her blog, including her initial difficulties with getting the bacteria to grow, allowing other scientists to help her by chiming in with troubleshooting suggestions.

"I'm writing about the experiments that I'm doing as I do them," said Redfield. "I'm not keeping everything secret until it's ready to be published."

Nature said the result has been a "fascinating story of open science unfolding over the year."

Redfield said colleagues at Princeton have been sent the bacteria DNA and are going to analyze it once it's been carefully purified.

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