We spend so much time discussing manufactured controversies about science that it’s a bit refreshing to be able to report on a real one. And one has been brewing since late last year, when Science released a report that suggested that researchers had forced bacteria to evolve to the point where they no longer simply tolerated arsenic, but incorporated it into their DNA. The publication quickly attracted criticism on a few blogs that were written by scientists, leading mainstream reporters to dig into matters. Now, the scientific community is having its say in the pages of Science, with eight separate technical comments on the work.
We covered the publication when it was first released, describing the major claims of the authors. They had isolated bacteria from an environment (California’s Mono Lake) that is naturally high in arsenic, and then grew them in the lab, gradually raising the levels of arsenic while dropping those of its close relative, phosphorous, which is a component of DNA. After sufficient selection, they tested the surviving bacteria, and found some evidence that indicated arsenic may have been used in place of phosphorous in DNA.
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Finally, a real scientific controversy: arsenic in DNA