NASA’s New Life, Global Warming Survey

Quick post today: busy with grading.

NASA’s Aliens

You will have heard of NASA’s press release, which all are characterizing as “redefining life as we know it.” As I read about this on other sites, it appeared that NASA’s astrobiology group had discovered, on Earth, a bacteria that natively replaced arsenic with phosphorus in its DNA. But NASA’s press release reads:

The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.

The key issue the researchers investigated was when the microbe was grown on arsenic did the arsenic actually became incorporated into the organisms’ vital biochemical machinery, such as DNA, proteins and the cell membranes. A variety of sophisticated laboratory techniques was used to determine where the arsenic was incorporated.

This makes it look like the bacteria, in some sense artificially, replaced its phosphorus after being deprived of that element, and that actual in situ versions of the arsenic-only microbe were not found. And it also appears that only some, but not all phosphorous was replaced.

Remarkable no matter which way you look at it; fascinating. Any biochemists or biologists out there who can explain this more in depth?

Global Warming Survey

I received this press release, in which some of you might have an interest. My memory tells me that I was one of the people who filled out the survey, but it was a while ago and I can’t recall.

The Greenhouse Gas Management Institute and Sequence Staffing are pleased to announce the results of The 2010 Greenhouse Gas & Climate Change Workforce Needs Assessment Survey, our second annual international survey to determine the latest workforce needs of the greenhouse gas and global climate change industry.

The full results are here. Very slick presentation; not much substance to my eye.

1. Climate change remains an emerging field where practitioners rise quickly through the ranks.
2. GHG training gets high marks overall, but serious reservations are noted.
3. U.S. facilities are ill-prepared for regulatory emissions reporting, while American and international companies cite confidence in climate risk disclosure.
4. Climate change practitioners support U.S. carbon pricing, yet are concerned about the level of public understanding on climate issues.
5. The carbon management software market is still in an embryonic stage.
6. Practitioners are concerned with peer competency; auditors are divided over the quality of work.
7. Carbon markets are not up to snuff; auditing needs enhanced governance.
8. GHG personnel are failing to meet current market requirements; competency concerns loom with the expansion of climate programs.
9. Climate employers and job seekers cite challenges in demonstrating and assessing carbon competency; they see professional certification as a fix.

The second “finding” reminds me of an opening scene in the John Wayne movie Donovan’s Reef. The CEO of a Boston shipping company was asking a board member, a prim, aged relative, his opinion on the matter before them. “No comment,” he said, “With reservations.” Package that quote up in fancy dress, and you have the 2010 Greenhouse Gas & Climate Change Workforce Needs Assessment Survey.

9 Comments

  1. The listing above conveys a concern that some GHG/Carbon practitioners suspect the presence of charlatans in their midst.

    Charles MacKay’s very excellent “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowd” contains a chapter on the alchemists.

    After a century or two when some fairly serious guys contended with producing gold from base metals and discovering the Elixir of Life which might greatly extend your visit to this planet, that these two areas were a dead-end began to be realized by the brighter sorts. (My God, what a sentence.)

    The field was then left to the folks seeking residencies with various princes and other wealthy types that they might live well, eat well, and spend someone else’s money while aligning the ducks to make gold or the Elixir, either pursuit being a tricky and very lengthy process.

    While you’re up, get me a Grant?

  2. It’s very frustrating trying to get the straight story on the arsenic bacteria story. From the NY Times article: ‘Dr. Joyce, however, said that the experimenters had yet to provide a “smoking gun” that there was arsenic in the backbone of working DNA.’ This seems to me to poke a hole in NASA’s hype balloon.

  3. Steve,

    The job of bacteria (indeed, the job of every living thing) is to reproduce. The material must come from somewhere. If only arsenic which is chemically related to phosphorus, was available and later detected within the organism its reasonable to assume it was used instead. Lack of “smoking gun” sounds like hedging to me — akin to the “no comment with reservations” quote.

    At least a “variety of sophisticated laboratory techniques was used to determine where the arsenic was incorporated.” Wouldn’t want alien bacteria to think less of us if run-of-the-mill tests were employed.

  4. For arsenical bacteria, try:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/12/its_not_an_arsenic-based_life.php

    Under the heading, “Blogging on peer-reviewed research”

    It also references the original reviewed paper in the journal, Science:

    Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PCW, Anbar AD, Oremland RS (2010) A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258.

  5. Well maybe PZ finally got something right? The interesting thing to me is the substitution of arsenic into the DNA. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time DNA has been found that is not shared by all other living things. PZ seems to have discounted this. He also seems to have missed the point that the vacuoles surrounding the water imply genetic alteration. Obviously, more research is needed but at least this time that’s not blatant panhandling.

  6. “U.S. facilities are ill-prepared for regulatory emissions reporting … ”

    Aren’t regulatory emissions emitted by Congress?

  7. This is SO simple: First of all the climate is changing all the time. It began getting warmer about 1850 and it was the 33rd global warming since the last ice age. Some of the current warming could be attributed to 6.7 billion humans burning everything they can find to stay warm and cook but most of it is simply the natural cycle. The “deniers” are those who changed the historical record to hide even higher temperatures of the 32nd global warming that occured in the 11th and 12th century and have also hidden temperature readings which didn’t support their agenda. (Not to mention the big lie/fraud commonly known as the hockey stick.)
    Secondly all of the emission/carbon schemes are about redistribution of wealth and power pure and simple. It is NOT about changing the climate and some of the more honest climatoligist admit we won’t be able to change the climate enough to measure (if at all). This is te worlds biggest ripoff and we are all here to see it happen. It proves humans are not nearly as smart as they think they are. P.T. Barnum was too conservative when he said “there is a sucker born every minute”.

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