Scientist in a Strange Land
Last December, Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced the discovery of a microbe that could change the way we understand life in the universe. Soon she found herself plunged into a maelstrom of bitter backlash and intemperate criticism. A dispatch from the frontiers of the new peer review.
This should have been Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s moment in the sun. But as the television crew takes positions, the 34-year-old scientist glances at the gray, churned-up lake behind her and gathers her collar around her neck. On cue, she begins her explanation of this lake’s unique chemistry, her voice rising in volume and pitch above the wind.
She’s halfway through the take when the gulls arrive. They swoop and swirl above the shoreline in a swarm, calling in harsh, jeering tones that drown out her carefully chosen words. As the sound technician pulls off her headphones in frustration, the director Oliver Twinch halts the taping and ventures a smile in Wolfe-Simon’s direction. “How about we try that one again?” he says.
“I think we’ll have to move,” Wolfe-Simon says, peering down toward her boots. “I’m sinking in the mud.”
It is this mud, and the peculiar microbes in it, that have stuck Wolfe-Simon in the middle of one of the most extraordinary scientific disputes in recent memory. Last December, at a highly publicized NASA press briefing, Wolfe-Simon announced that her research team had isolated bacteria from Mono Lake, on the edge of California’s Eastern Sierra mountain range, that could subsist on arsenic in place of phosphorus, one of the elements considered essential for all life.
The research, financed mostly by NASA and published initially in the online edition of Science, jolted the scientific community. If confirmed, scientists said, the discovery would mean that this high mountain lake hosts a form of life distinct from all others known on Earth. It would open up the possibility of a shadow biosphere, composed of organisms that can survive using means that long-accepted rules of biochemistry cannot explain. And it would give Mono Lake, rather than Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons, the distinction of being the first place in our solar system where “alien” life was discovered.