Monday, June 23, 2014

Morningstar displays his dismal misunderstanding of microbiology

        Internet woo radio, it seems, is falling over itself in its eagerness to give a platform to Robert Morningstar and his erroneous ideas. Today it was the turn of The Higherside Chats to offer us all an hour of our lives that we can never get back.

        AM* happened to touch on two topics that I know a lot about, and in both cases showed such a calamitous misunderstanding that it almost literally took my breath away. Here's the first, in his exact words:

18:39 "About three years ago, a few NASA scientists came out and said that they had found a special form of life in Mono Lake, California, which was based on arsenic. It was a cell, or a culture, that reproduced itself and its metabolism and its life cycle was based not on carbon but on arsenic of all things ... And the premise of this revelation was --- her name was Dr. Wolf, and she had a hyphenated name, but I only remember Dr Wolf, or Wolfson. But she said a very interesting thing. She said the important thing about their finding was that the search for life as we have conducted it for the last 40 years -- life on Mars, life on the Moon, life anywhere -- has been conducted through too narrow a window. We've been looking only for carbon-based life. And this showed that there is another form of life that was based on arsenic. And then she made the most amazing statement. She said "Now this life-form cannot thrive on Earth because the temperature is too hot. It needs all of its energy just to maintain its steady state, so it cannot expand, propagate, reproduce, it just has to keep accumulating the arsenic to maintain its steady-state existence. However, on another planet where the temperature was much colder than Earth...." and she then said "perhaps on some place like Saturn's moon Titan, where the temperature is 167 below zero it might be possible for such an organism to thrive and propagate." That was [an] Earth-shattering statement. And really the important thing was pointing out that perhaps the paradigm was wrong -- that our assumption that all life, any life, must be based on carbon is a fallacy, it's an erroneous assumption. So they called for reviewing all the previous work that we've done, and to start expanding, opening the window a little wider, in order to see whether or not we missed something."
        Well, of course he's here  referring to the fetching Dr Felisa Wolfe-Simon, known as "Iron Lisa," and the extremophile bacterium she called GFAJ-1. The only things Morningstar got roughly right were "about three years ago" (actually December 2010) and "Mono Lake." The rest of it is absolute balderdash -- he managed to get the story even more wrong than Richard Hoagland did when he reported it at the time.

        Iron Lisa never made the claim that GFAJ-1 was not carbon-based. The organism is carbon-based without any question at all. The claimed arsenic substitution was for phosphorous, not carbon. Duhhhhh.... She never even claimed that arsenic was incorporated into the nucleotide bases which are the four letters of the genetic codenote 1 (that's the part Hoagland got wrong.) All she said was that, in the low-phosphorous, high-arsenic environment of Mono Lake, this organism has found a way of substituting arsenic for some of the phosphorous in its DNA structural backbone.

        I saw the whole of the press conference on 2nd December 2010, and followed the story carefully. To my knowledge Wolfe-Simon never said that GFAJ-1 was more suited to Titan than Earth, or that it could not thrive in Mono Lake. As most readers of this blog already know, her findings were later discredited by Rosie Redfield and Alex Bradley. "GFAJ" turned out to mean "Get Felisa A Job." The story is quite well told in wikipedia.

        Moving right along, here's AM* again, on a subject I really know a lot about.

21:10 "Dr Levinnote 2, who is in charge of the Mars Viking Life research project, and they think they found life, back in 1976 when Viking landed. They did an experiment, and the experiment was to scoop up some dirt and to drop in some nutrients that had a little bit of radioactivity in. And the premise was that if there were any microbial activity in the soil that it would eat the nutrient and exude gases that could be picked up because they were radioactive. Indeed they did. And an announcement was made that there was life on Mars. Then NASA quashed that finding and said that the experiment was wrong, and that they did another experiment that proved it was wrong. Well, the experiment that they did was a different experiment, and it was intentionally conducted to kill any life that was in the soil. I was watching Dr Levin on a show on the Science Channel --it was called "NASA's Secret UFO Files" And he said that what they had done was they had taken soil and cooked it. And then tested that soil for life. And he said "How can you find any life in soil that has been heated in such a way that it would kill any microbial life?" "
        I wrote that I really know about this subject. Yes, indeed -- I was personally right there at JPL as all this was unfolding, making a TV documentary about the very subject of extraterrestrial life for the BBC. So to say I was interested would be an understatement.

        First of all, Gil Levín was not  "in charge of the Mars Viking Life research project." Harold "Chuck" Klein held that position, and Gerry Soffen was overall head of Viking Science. Dr Levín was one of three PIs whose life-detection experiments were carried on each of the two Viking landers.

        Morningstar's description of the Labeled Release experiment is correct, and it's also correct that its results were arguably positive for life. However, his description of the other experiment is woefully, hopelessly, wrong. He must be referring to the Pyrolytic Release experiment -- which, by the way, was not "a NASA experiment" any more than Levín's was. Norman Horowitz of CalTech was the PI.

        Horowitz's strategy was to test for carbon fixation by micro-organisms. He fed the soil water in the presence of radio-labeled carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. After several days, he tested to see if any labeled carbon had been "ingested". The way of doing this was to heat the soil to 650°C and see if any labeled carbon was given off. To say that the experiment "killed microbial life" is thoroughly misleading. The answer to the question "How can you find any life in soil that has been heated in such a way?" is "Very easily. It was done over and over again in trials with all kinds of microbial life before Viking ever flew."

        I blogged about this as long ago as April 2008. Read it again if you want to know why Gil Levín's experiment was not considered definitive in the end.

Now for the good news...
        At the very beginning of his Higherside Chat, Morningstar allowed that he was fallible. That he might make mistakes. He correctly said that being wrong isn't a crime, and that he "welcomed corrections."

Consider yourself corrected, Robert.

1] There is no phosphorous in adenine, thymine, cytosine or guanine.
2] Small point -- Morningstar mispronounces Dr Levín's name. The accent is on the second syllable. But you have to be a real space buff to know that, not a dilettante like AM*.


Trekker said...

Expat, can you explain why you refer to Robert Morningstar as AM*? If the M stands for Morningstar, what do the A and the asterisk stand for?

expat said...

Sure. AM = Morning, PM = Afternoon.

Trekker said...

OK, got it - but it wasn't that obvious!

Dee said...

Even more confusing is that "morning stars" like Venus and Sirus just as well appear as "evening stars" depending on circumstances. So it would be proper to call Robert just AM-PM** then.

The larger point however is that perpetuating and exploiting confusion is the real name of the game here :-)


Binaryspellbook said...

I listened to this show. It was absolutely excruciating. Clearly in the land of woo no vetting of guests ever takes place.