Thankfully, Wired Science did end pushing down the Gizmodo piece with a much better article from Science News (featuring the superb lede, “When cooking up the stuff of life, you can’t just substitute margarine for butter. Or so scientists thought”). Oddly enough, though, the website of Wired in the United Kingdom (a separate edition) also coughed up a highly misleading story under the erroneous headline “NASA discovers second form of life.” The second paragraph even draws an irresponsible connection between the Science paper and recent news about Earth-like exoplanets:
[The research] suggests that they’ve developed entirely independently from our life, implying that if life has evolved twice on Earth, then it’s far more likely to have evolved off Earth too — especially as it’s believed by astronomers that among stars similar to the Sun, as many as one in four could have small rocky planets like Earth, at least some of which would occupy the same “goldilocks zone” that Earth exists in — neither too hot, nor too cold, for life to emerge.
Such extrapolation should be avoided in science reporting. Fortunately, all of the big U.S. newspapers that covered the story were careful to explain the microbe from Mono Lake belongs to the same “tree of life” from which sprang all other earthly critters, from human beings to the chemosynthetic extremeophiles living near deep-sea ocean vents. The Washington Post did, however, change overwrought headline, “Second Genesis on Earth?” to the somewhat more responsible, “Bacteria stir debate about ‘shadow biosphere.’”
And the The New York Times got a little hyperbolic in its lede, which reported that the new research “open[s] up the possibility that organisms could exist elsewhere in the universe or even here on Earth using biochemical power we have not yet dared to dream about.”
The research does open that possibility, but, in fact, a few scientists have been dreaming about it for some time now. As the Washington Post article pointed out, theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies, one of the co-authors of this week’s paper, has “been thinking about the idea of a shadow biosphere for a decade and had written a paper on it in 2005.” And an interesting piece in The Christian Science Monitor reported that “a small number of scientists have been pushing the idea of ‘life as we don’t know it’” for at least half a decade.
Any discussion of the “shadow biosphere” or “life as we don’t know it” should make it clear, however, that scientists’ success in inducing the Mono Lake bacterium to substitute arsenic for phosphorus does not prove that researchers have yet discovered a fundamentally different basis for life