Recent NASA news shook the web with the announcement that lead scientist and geomicrobilogist Felisa Wolfe-Simon of NASA’s Astrobiology Program has made a discovery that will cause textbooks to be rewritten. She found an organism at California's Mono Lake Research Area "that can utilize arsenic in place of phosphorus," reports Astrobiology Magazine and multiple other news sources.
I heard the news first in passing and confess that it didn't occur to me that the lead scientist was female, and that shows how my assumptions are still formed by the male-dominated science landscape of my youth.
It was NPR science expert Jon Hamilton answering his colleagues at "The Two Way" that made me realize a woman discovered GFAJ-1 (name given to new arsenic-chomping microbe).
"One of the truisms of science is that life isn't possible without six elements, one of which is phosphorus.And now we know she hit pay dirt.
"But a young scientist at NASA wondered whether that truism was really true. She thought arsenic, which is chemically very similar to phosphorous, might work as a substitute.
"So she and other researchers began studying tiny organisms taken from the mud of Mono Lake in California. ...
On one level, her gender doesn't matter because a man, questioning one of science's assumptions, may have made the same discovery. On the next level, however, knowing that women sometimes seem invisible in the science and technologies communities, I think it's important to spotlight Wolfe-Simon's gender.
To clarify, her discovery is not a new life form as some news agencies and bloggers have reported. What's important is that GFAJ-1 can use something other than phosphorous to sustain itself and it incorporates that element, the toxin arsenic, into its DNA. Matthew Herper at Forbes says that "astrobiologists like the idea that life can be built with a completely different set of chemical building blocks because it means that life could then exist in all sorts of places that Earth-based living things would find intolerable," and the existence of GFAJ-1 qualifies as evidence of that.
However, he explains further that the microbe is probably doing something life on Earth did in its early stages, and so, "It’s not so much a new form of life as evidence that you can teach the old form of life new tricks." He says that Wolfe-Simon's paper at Science indicates she does not classify GFAJ-1 as a new life form, and he likes this view:
"Gerald Joyce, of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, puts this really well in the New York Times, telling science reporter Dennis Overbye that these critters are stuck on the same tree of life as dinosaurs, plants, and yeast. “It’s a really nice story about [the] adaptability of our life form,” Joyce told Overbye. “It gives food for thought about what might be possible in another world.”"You may also appreciate Jon Hamilton's full story on the discovery that ran on Morning Edition today.
As I finish this post, I notice that the first science reports popping up with this news were not written by women. What does that tell us?