Skip to content

All posts by Joe Chemler

Joe Chemler has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. He is currently employed as a post-doctoral fellow in a medicinal chemistry laboratory. Research interests include protein engineering, metabolic engineering and natural product discovery.

Is butanol our next biofuel?

Dependence on fossil fuels, increasing global energy demand and concerns of greenhouse gas emissions have led to an interest in alternative fuels produced from domestic renewable sources. In recent year, interest in bio-butanol has increased due to its perceived advantages over the traditional gasoline substitute, bio-ethanol. Here I will discuss the current state of bio-butanol and the challenges and possible solutions to making bio-butanol.

1-Butanol (butyl alcohol or n-butanol) is a four carbon straight chained alcohol with a molecular formula of C4H9OH (MW 74.12) and boiling point of 118 ºC. 1-Butanol is an important chemical precursor for paints, polymers and plastics Most 1-butanol produced today is synthetic and derived from a petrochemical route. Synthetic butanol production costs are linked to the propylene market and are extremely sensitive to the price of crude oil.

Renewable 1-butanol is produced from the fermentation of carbohydrates in a process often referred to as the ABE fermentation, after its major chemical products: acetone, butanol and ethanol. The ABE fermentation is a proven industrial process that uses species of bacteria called clostridia to convert sugars or starches into solvents. Biobutanol is an attractive renewable liquid transportation biofuel with superior properties to bio-ethanol. Bio-butanol is compatible with existing fuel infrastructure, has a better energy density, higher octane rating and less hydroscopic than ethanol and can be made from more sustainable feedstocks than bio-diesel. Therefore, if bio-butanol can be made cheaply and on renewable resources, it can readily replace ethanol and bio-diesel in the biofuel market estimated to be worth $247 billion by 2020.

Commercial production

The ABE fermentation process was first developed in the UK in 1912 and was quickly adapted for commercial production during World War I and II; first to produce acetone for ammunitions and second to produce butanol for use in paint lacquers. Butanol is now the preferred solvent since it attracts a higher price in the chemical market. By the 1950s, a synthetic route was developed and the renewable solvents were no longer cost effective. Today, research into the ABE fermentation process may make bio-butanol a new competitor in the bio-fuels market.

China leads efforts to re-commercialize the ABE fermentation process by investing over $200 million into six major corn starch-fed plants with plans to expand production capacity. Traditionally, most plants operate in a semicontinuous fashion with each fermentation lasting up to 21 days. The reactors consist of a cascading series of fermentation tanks that convert seed cultures and fresh feedstock into solvents. Conventional distillation is then used to recover the acetone, butanol and ethanol. Most plants are next to ethanol plants to reduce utility and operating costs. The butanol and ethanol plants can share treatment facilities to process the aqueous waste streams produced from anaerobic fermentations. Biogas produced as a bioproduct is used for heat and power.

The challenges for ABE fermentation

In general, to make the ABE route profitable, there is a need for cheaper feedstocks, improved yields, and more efficient solvent recovery and waste water recycle. Feedstocks contribute most to production costs, typically over 75% of the total. Biobutanol profitability is extremely sensitive to any price fluctuation in the price of feedstocks. Therefore, transitioning to a cheaper (non-edible) feedstock offers the greatest opportunity for cost reduction and improved sustainability.

Butanol titer and yield

The butanol titer (concentration) and yield (fraction of feedstock converted into butanol) of the ABE fermentation is largely a function of the microorganism. Performance can be improved by inducing mutations using chemical mutagens and selecting for improve traits, specific genetic manipulation or a combination of both. There are four main solvent producing strains that have been used industrially with Clostridium acetobutylicum ATCC 824 being the best studied and manipulated strain (the others being C. saccharobutylicum, C. beijerinckii and C. saccharoperbutylacetonicum). Research into manipulating these strains has been helped through the publication of their genomic sequences. Significant progress has been made in genetically manipulating C. acetobutylicum while the progress to genetically engineer the other strains has lagged.


Currently, biobutanol is economical if it is sold as a chemical commodity instead as a cheaper biofuel. For it to be sold profitably as a biofuel, the cost of feedstocks must be reduced. If cheaper waste streams (such as corn cobs, corn stover, sugar cane bagasse, wheat straw and municipal solid waste) could be converted into feed stocks then biobutanol could compete on price with ethanol for the biofuel market.

Solvent recovery

Currently, distillation is used as a robust and proven process to recover butanol from fermentations but the process is energy intensive. Improvements can be made to make the conventional distillation process for energy efficient but the biggest reduction in energy use can only be achieved by development of nonconventional means. Since butanol is toxic to the ABE strains, online removal of butanol from the fermentation will result in higher yields. Methods like gas stripping, pervaporation, reverse osmosis, vacuum fermentation, and aqueous two phase separation are being researched for online butanol removal.

What’s Michigan Doing?

In April of this year, Cobalt Technologies and American Process announced an agreement to build the world’s first industrial-scale cellulosic biorefinery to produce biobutanol. A plant is currently under construction in Alpena, Michigan. By April 2012, the Alpena Biorefinery will produce 470,000 gallons of biobutanol annually, which will be pre-sold to chemical industry partners.


The clostridial ABE fermentation is an old, but proven, industrial fermentation process that has be re-established recently. The clostridial ABE fermentation process is relatively simple and existing ethanol plants can be retrofitted fairly easily to produce butanol. In order to penetrate the larger biofuel market, biobutanol needs to compete on cost with ethanol despite its superior fuel properties. Reduction in feedstock cost offers the best opportunity especially since clostridia are well suited for sugars derived from cellulosic material. Further advances for both 1-butanol are likely to come from the deployment of continuous culture, especially when coupled with in situ methods for solvent extraction and recovery. The application of advances in biotechnology and engineering to the clostridia ABE fermentation process will drive down the cost of 1-butanol production.

Arsenate-Tolerant Bacteria from Mono Lake. Part 2

Over six months have passed since the world was introduced to GFAJ-1, a bacterium reportedly capable of incorporating arsenic (As) into biomolecules as a substitute for phosphorus (P). I previously summarized the paper and some of the initial peer-reviewed responses. Since then, scientists have voiced their concerns, primarily focusing on the quality and type of experiments performed and the relative instability of arsenate compared to phosphate. Early June, the journal Science published a set of eight technical comments that represented the key objections to the paper, along with a response from the authors, who stand by their work. A summary that links to all the comments and response can be found here. The comments and responses are behind a pay wall but if you are interested in reading them yourself, let me know and I should be able to help you. Basically, nothing new was presented. Disappointingly, there was no new data presented to help address some of the critics of the paper. What is noteworthy is that the strain GFAJ-1 is now being distributed directly from the original laboratory. Strains often distributed through ATCC but there is an initial processing time. Distributing the strains directly from research lab has allowed researchers to access the strain now rather than later.

A leading skeptic of the work, Rosemary Redfield of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, has received the strain and is currently blogging about her progress as she works with the strain. So far, she has been having trouble growing GFAJ-1 in liquid cultures (in accordance to the experimental procedure reported in the original Wolf-Simon paper). According to Dr. Redford, the strain grows quite well on the solid support of agar within a petri dish. If the issues with the poor growth in liquid cultures are not resolved than Redfield will have to discontinue this side project and focus on the work she is being funded to do.

This brings up the issue of replicating published work. Some principal investigators are reluctant to spend their resources, and their students’ time, replicating published results. It is both not novel and relevant research, which is a major factor for a journal to accept and publish a scientific manuscript. By relevant I mean, it does not contribute useful scientific information. If it does not contribute anything significant of value then it, in all likelihood, will be rejected by the peer review process. Furthermore, a student who is assigned to replicate the work will not be able to get a job based on working on such a project. Students that are striving to become the next generation of scientists do not benefit from repeating work. Well, it could be useful if used as a means to train a student how to do research but time is better spent training on a project that is relevant to the principle investigator. Part of the criteria for receiving a degree requiring a thesis is to show that during their time in graduate school, they contributed something significant to the science community (i.e. science publications and inventions). Similarly, the adviser of the student would benefit little from such work. They would have to pull resources and money away from other research projects to replicate such work. Else, a professor would need to apply for a separate grant, a grant application that would likely be rejected for the same reasons why the research would not be published in a journal.

These issues and others are critiqued by PZ Myer as being, if true, as “symptoms of something rotten in the world of science.” As a scientist that is still in training to be an academic researcher, my initial reaction is that all these things are of little surprise to me. It is just how things work. In my opinion, the scientific community on a whole just does not feel that replicated work is ‘sexy’ enough. It’s boring. There is very little incentive. What usually ends up happening is that the questionable research paper is, for the most part, ignored and will receive very little citations. Problem solved by just ignoring it. Is this the most ideal way to deal with it? No but it is just reality for now. Hopefully, there will be follow up research published.

Does Catnip Essential Oil Protect Against Mosquitoes?

The conditions are set for a bumper crop of mosquitoes this summer in Michigan. Mosquito populations come in waves, and as the spring mosquitoes are dying off, the summer mosquitoes are set to emerge followed by another peak in the population early July. Summer mosquitoes thrive in warm weather and breed in stagnant waters. Following a rainy month of May that left water tables high, it could be perfect conditions for an especially large population of those nasty pests that leave us all itching for relief.

Mosquitoes have a great impact on our quality of life as we try to enjoy the great outdoors, but they also harbor disease organisms and pass them on to humans and other animals. Examples of this are Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus (WNV), mosquito-borne viruses that can be found in Michigan. The best way to reduce the risk of infection by mosquito-transmitted diseases is to reduce exposure. The Michigan Mosquito Control Association has a few recommendations to reduce exposure to the hungry mosquitoes: Wear long sleeved shirts and long pants, try not to go outdoors during hours of peak mosquito activity (dusk and dawn), keep all window and door screens in good repair, and wear mosquito repellents containing DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus, making sure to read repellent labels before use.

The most common and effective chemical used in commercial repellents is N, N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide (DEET). DEET has over a 50 year history of use, first becoming commercially available in 1957. Despite the numerous lay press reports questioning the safety of DEET, this repellent has been subjected to more scientific and toxicologic scrutiny than any other insect repellent. DEET has a remarkable safety profile spanning the last half century with over 8 billion human applications. Still, there have been significant efforts in academia, government and private sector to identify new insect repellents. This has largely been driven by reports of DEET toxicity, minimal efficacy towards certain subspecies of insects, high incidences of insect-borne diseases, decreasing consumer acceptance and the potential for insects to develop resistances.

In the search for alternatives, thousand of plants have been screened as potential insect repellents from botanical sources. Most plant-based insect repellents on the market contain essential oils from one or more of the following plants: geranium, citronella, cedar, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemongrass, and soybean. Products made from oils-of-eucalyptus perform the best out of these examples.

Catnip is another example historically used as an insect repellent and as a folk lore remedy. Although not native to North America, catnip now grows throughout Michigan and is generally considered a weed. Nepeta cataria (also known as catnip, catswort, or catmint) is a plant in the Lamiaceae family. The common names can also be used to refer to the Nepeta genus as a whole. The main chemicals in oils of catnip were identified to be nepetalactones, consisting primarily of two isoforms. Here I review some of the recent studies on catnip for its ability to repel mosquitoes.

Field tests were conducted using a hydrogenated form of catnip oil in Florida and Maine. First, the essential oil of catnip was catalytically hydrogenated to yield dihydronepetalactones (DHN). Strictly speaking, hydrogenated catnip oil (HCO) is not something the average person can make without a palladium catalyst, hydrogen gas and a pressure vessel. DHN was previously detected in the defensive secretions of certain insects and it had been reported that DHN had the ability to repel ants. HCO was formulated into a lotion or alcohol-based spray. All HCO formulas exhibited some degree of extended protection with the 15% by weight HCO lotion providing complete protection during the eight hour tests. The authors suggest that formulations of HCO can be effective alternative to existing repellents such as DEET.

In Australia, a commercial product containing 5% catnip essential oil was tested as repellent against four different species of mosquitoes. Significant variation was observed for protection afforded against different mosquito species ranging from no protect to four hours on average. In contrast, a 7% DEET spray provided complete protection over a six hour period. Overall, the authors concluded that catnip does provide limited protection against some mosquito species in Australia, and may be more effective than other products containing natural plant extracts, but it was not as effective as DEET.

A study from China compared catnip essential oil along with other plant essential oils and DEET. Catnip essential oil (composed of 36%, 45%, 18% isomer 1, isomer 2, and caryophyllene) provided the best protection against mosquitoes and the only oil to provide complete protection for over six hours. When testing the major ingredients of catnip oil, their tests showed that a blend containing the nepetalactone isomers at a 3:1 ratio has the highest and longest repellent activity.

The most recent study published in 2011 on the use of catnip essential oils was performed on Afro-topical mosquitoes originally cultivated from Tanzania. They compared two different batches of catnip and found that the isomeric composition of nepatalactone varied considerable (batch A: 92% isomer 1 and 8% caryophyllene, and batch B: 17% isomer 1, 70% isomer 2, and 13% caryophyllene). Upon testing, batch A was not as effective at repelling mosquitoes as compared to batch B. Purified isomers provided inferior protection to either batches of essential oils. Testing of binary mixtures confirmed the synergistic effect between the two isomers. Lower activity was seen with purified isomers and, surprisingly, with equivalent or near equivalent binary mixtures. Highest activity was afforded when the isomers were mixed in 3:1 ratios. Furthermore, a ratio mixture equivalent to batch B did not perform as well compared to either batch of essential oils. A three component blend containing caryophyllene at the levels found in batch B had the same activity as the essential oil.

Typical of plant extracts, the concentration of active ingredients various from batch to batch and the variation is dependent upon things like supply location, seasonal variations, age of the plant, and extraction procedure. Indeed, the ratio of isomers within a catnip plant was shown to vary weekly and the effectiveness of the essential oils to repel insects varied greatly.

Overall, the research on catnip essential oil has proven it to be an effective repellent of mosquitoes. Some variation on the species of mosquitoes repelled and the duration of effectiveness was found. The data suggests that catnip can be used as an effective insect repellent when used as an unfractionated essential oil due to the presence of both nepetalactone isomers and other components such as caryophyllene. However, for practical use of these plant essential oils, further studies on their safety to human health are necessary.

Many of the articles cited are behind paywalls. Copies of specific articles will be provided upon request.

Veterinary Acupuncture: Name That Logical Fallacy

I have wanted to post a commentary ever since I’ve been seeing ads in the Ann Arbor Observer advertising acupuncture for pets by non-veterinarians. Recently, has hosted a couple pieces on acupuncture for pets including one from Lorrie Shaw and Dr. Taryn Clark and Dr. Jessica Franklin, two local veterinarians. The piece by Dr. Clark and Dr. Franklin will do nicely for deconstruction and a game of name that logical fallacy.

Acupuncture has been practiced for a long time — estimates range from 3,500-5,000 years, with written records dating to the second century B.C., though its origins are unclear.

The obvious reason for such a statement is to make the implication that since it’s been around for so long, it must therefore also be effective (logical fallacy: appeal to antiquity). However, longevity doesn’t argue for efficacy, otherwise everyone would likely agree that astrology can determine a person’s destiny based the position of celestial bodies; astrology has been practiced for many more years than acupuncture.

Despite ancient sources showing acupuncture being applied to animals, it has only started to catch on in modern veterinary medicine in the last few decades.

Obviously, proponents of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) want their ideas to be viewed as being widely used and accepted. Even though the popularity of an idea does not reliably indicate how whether or not the idea is true (logical fallacy: Argumentum ad populum), it is natural to think there is at least some truth to it if a lot of people believe in it. Despite the historical claim that veterinary acupuncture has been around for a long time, more than likely, it’s not what you think.

Whether the explanation for its effect comes from contemporary medicine (it stimulates nerves and releases endorphins) or traditional Chinese (it restores the flow of Qi through the area), the purpose of acupuncture is to relieve pain and stimulate the healing process.

Here’s an instance of ‘you can’t have it both ways’ (logical fallacy: inconsistency fallacy). Acupuncture is based on pre-scientific concepts of a vitalistic entity (Qi) and of meridians and acupuncture points unknown to anatomists. More scientific explanations have been offered as to how it might work, including a counterirritant effect or the gate control theory of pain. There is evidence that acupuncture can stimulate endogenous endorphin production, but there is evidence that placebo pills can do that as well. Acupuncture has been studied for decades but the results are inconsistent. If a treatment is truly effective, studies tend to produce more convincing results as time passes and the weight of evidence accumulates. In fact, taken as a whole, the published (and scientifically rigorous) evidence leads to the conclusion that acupuncture is no more effective than placebo.

Benefits include: Drug-free; Surgery-free; Immediate results

Applications for acupuncture include: Treatment of arthritis, degenerative joint disease, or hip dysplasia; General pain management; Post-surgery pain; Cancer chemotherapy/radiation support; Immune support; Treatment of nerve dysfunction

There is good evidence that the therapeutic ritual of acupuncture has some symptomatic benefit for such indications, at least in humans. This is almost certainly a non-specific treatment effect (aka “placebo”). It does not seem to matter where needles are inserted or if they are inserted at all, and acupuncture therapy does not appear to measurably affect the course of any actual disease. (The Skeptic’s Dictionary has a clear and concise review). The term ‘support’ used above does not even having any useful meaning. Immune support… it sounds like the immune system is sagging against gravity due to age and needs a lift.

Acupuncture can be administered at any time and is frequently tried after other types of treatments, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), have failed to produce the desired results or have undesirable side effects. In cases of degenerative nerve disease, it actually works better than drugs because it stimulates nerve function.

Acupuncture has been studies extensively in humans and it seems that the ritual of acupuncture is what provides the perception of pain reduction. In animals, there is no reliable, high-quality research evidence for the benefits of acupuncture. The studies that have been done have found both positive and negative results, but the poor quality and lack of replication make the existing evidence insufficient to recommend acupuncture therapy. And what does ‘stimulate nerve function’ mean? I can poke someone in the arm with a pencil and that person should be happy since I just stimulated their nerve function.

Electroacupuncture, a variation on traditional acupuncture, also involves needles being inserted at specific locations. The difference is that an electric pulse is applied, through two needles at a time, in sessions typically lasting 20 minutes.

Electroacupuncture has been referred to as a bait-and-switch, because it is arguably not acupuncture at all. Obviously, the ancient Chinese lacked electricity, so the theories and guidelines developed for acupuncture in humans are not really relevant to the effects of electricity on the body.

An informative study was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) on June 1, 2010, about intervertebral disk disease (IVDD) — a common though difficult and painful disease we see in dogs — and the use of electroacupuncture to treat it. The study showed a significantly higher success rate for dogs who underwent electroacupuncture than for dogs that received decompressive surgery.

Electroacupuncture alone saw success in 15 of 19

Decompressive surgery saw success in 4 of 10

Surgery followed by acupuncture saw success in 8 of 11

Here’s a closer look at this study. To sum it up, there were major methodological problems (no blinding, no subjective way to characterize and compare the quality of treatments, small study size). Although it is possible that electrical stimulation can have some effect on various parts of a dog, much better designed studies would be necessary to legitimately claim the same conclusions as this paper did.

A case study from Ann Arbor Animal Hospital

We have seen a lot of wonderful old pets who are generally healthy but in pain, like Maggie, a 15-year-old cat.
Maggie, my beloved 15 year old feline has had a relatively healthy life. But when she started having problems, even though I suspected they were part of the aging process, I became alarmed. Last winter, I noticed Maggie was limping, which was followed by her inability to groom herself in the meticulous way she always had. Then as time went on, I noticed she had stopped playing and going up and down the stairs was becoming difficult for her. Then, it seemed that I could not even pick her up without her flinching from pain and crying when I put pressure on her lower spine.

Presenting these problems to Maggie’s veterinarian, Dr. Jess Franklin, Maggie was eventually given a diagnosis of arthritis. I knew Dr. Franklin was also an animal acupuncturist, so I asked her if she thought acupuncture would help and could she do it for her. She said the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital has had good outcomes with other animals and she would certainly try to help Maggie.

After weeks of acupuncture sessions combined with Dasuquin (a Glucosamine for cats), my Maggie is back to her near meticulous grooming and she no longer cries when I pick her up. She is moving a bit slower and she still has a slight limp, but Maggie is back to being the queen of the household and she won’t let anyone forget it!

Maggie is a great example of how well acupuncture and natural products can be integrated into the care of our animals. Maggie also takes Amlodipine for high blood pressure; Standard Process Renal Support, a whole food supplement; and uses Hill’s Prescription K/D for ongoing kidney disease.

Case studies are among the lowest forms of evidence and rank just above anecdotal evidence. I would venture to say that the above example is anecdotal evidence. Basically, it does not prove acupuncture was the treatment that worked for Maggie and it should be pointed out that acupuncture was not the sole treatment used. In fact, Dasuquin is marketed as a treatment for joint pain like arthritis in both dogs and cats.

Around 85% of our acupuncture patients are older dogs with musculoskeletal ailments. Some signs that your dog is experiencing pain that acupuncture may be able to assuage:

Abnormal sitting or lying posture; Restlessness; Whining, groaning or other vocalizing; Limping, unable to get up or lie down; Difficulty getting into car or down stairs; Lack of grooming; Won’t wag tail; Licking or biting area; Lack of appetite; Trembling

Obviously, if something appears off with your pet, see the vet, but the evidence that acupuncture works in humans, let alone, animals, is questionable at best. Personally, I’ve been looking for a vet that’s a little closer since I moved a few months ago to Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor Animal Hospital has been crossed off  my list permanently.

The Great Michigan UFO Chase of 1966- part 5

UFO Sighters Do Not Believe USAF Experts

Fort Scott Tribute (Kansas): March 26, 1966.

DETROIT, Mich. (AP)- An expert’s opinion that some of objects- UFO- probably were swamp gases may have convinced the Air Force but not the people who saw them.

“I’m no professor, and I’m not as educated as him, but I think he’s all wrong.” Mrs. Frank Mannor said of Dr. J. Allen Hynek.

Hynek, a Northwestern University astrophysicist and scientific consultant for the Air Force, told a news conference Friday that sightings made on two specific days probably had stemmed from swamp gasses.

He said his study had been confined to sights made near Dexter March 20 by the Mannor family and by officers and at Hillsdale by 87 college coeds and the county Civil Defense director.

Dexter, a small community is about 50 miles southwest of Detroit. Hillsdale is about 100 miles west.

Hynek said a photograph taken by a sheriff’s deputy March 16 near Milan, several miles south of Dexter, showed the rising crescent moon and the planet Venus. The deputy said the two streaks of brilliant light on the photograph, identified by Hynek as the moon and planet had been captured on film by his camera in a time exposure as he observed what he considered to be unidentified flying objects.

Numerous UFO sights have been reported in Michigan especially southern lower portion, in recent weeks, many of them by law officers. Hynek said he had not investigated these because large enough groups had not witnessed them.

He said both the sightings he did investigate were in swamp areas- “most unlikely place for a visit from outer space”- and added the UFOs probably had resulted from spring thaw releasing trapped gases from decomposing organic materials.

He added that in the Hillsdale case the sighting might have been assisted by youths playing pranks with flares. The remains of several flares were found near the college shortly after the sightings.

“There were no flares involved in this,” said William Van Horn, Hillsdale County Civil Defense director.

He and the Hillsdale College coeds reported watching a white and red object- about 20 feet across- from dormitory wings for nearly three hours.

“I think I will disprove him (Hynek) in a few weeks,” Van Horn daid. “I also didn’t care for the methods of investigation. I know no flares were involved.”

Milton M. Ferguson, the college’s director of public affairs did not see the UFO but said he had been told of it by Dean of Women Kelly Hearn and the coeds.

“What they saw had no resemblance to rockets or flares,” he said. “I don’t know what it was, nor do the people who saw it, but this is trying to explain it away arbitrarily. The Air Force is going to get into trouble going on in this way. It seems a whitewash.”

At Dexter, Mrs. Mannor said, “I saw it (the UFO) with my own eyes. And my son and husband wouldn’t lie. They saw it too. I think there’s something going on the people don’t know about. I’m scared. I want to pack up and move.”

Said her husband: “There’s nothing wrong with my eyes and my son (Robert, 19) has 20-20 vision. We both can’t be wrong.”

Dexter Police Chief Robert Taylor, who says he also saw the object, said, “I have no idea what it was, but I don’t think it was swamp gas.”

Local Opinions Contrast on UFO Reports

The Dexter Leader: March 31, 1966

Inquiring Reporter Finds Wide Variation in Hometown Thinking

What does the average man on the street think about the recent sightings of unidentified flying objects and the notoriety it has given our Village? We asked and here are the replies.

Art Klumpp, employed by Michigan Bell Telephone Co.: I think they’re possible, anything is possible.”

Al Lavalli, fire chief and owner of Dexter Pharmacy: “Nuts!”

John Willertz, teaching fellow for the U. of M. and Scio Township Democratic chairman: “Someday I hope we get visitors from planets that aren’t so shy and that will have the courage to land in from of The Dexter Leader. I’m afraid to look for them, I might see them!”

Joe LaRosa, co-owner and manager of LaRosa’s Confectionary: “It’s crazy!”

Paul Cousins, DEA president and high school biology teacher: “I don’t believe they are flying saucers from outer space but I do believe they saw something that resembled what we think a flying saucer would look like.”

Mrs. Robert Ferguson, Loch Alpine housewife: “I think it’s great, even if only that it’s giving attention to Washtenaw county. People who are sighting these things are people I can trust and I believe them!”

Bruce Waggoner, former village president: “Interesting! I think everyone should have one.”

Carlton Hutchinson, superintendent of schools: “All things are within the realm of possibility. For example, when a satellite can be shot into orbit, revolve around the earth four times, and then can be met and connected to a second vehicle in space, then I feel UFO’s are possible.”

Police Chief Robert Taylor: “I never saw anything like it.”

Galbraith Gorman, retired former director: I think that its marsh gas because there’s no residue there they supposedly landed.”

Dorothy Hunawill, mother of UFO sighter Officer Robert Hunawill: “Are we sure that the professor who says that it’s ‘swamp gas’ isn’t from outer space? Why doesn’t the Chamber of Commerce or Jaycees latch onto this and really promote Dexter: Hell did and they’re a town on the way up. At least Dexter is starting at a heavenly level.”

With that we ended our interviewing. Who could top that?

UFO Reports Persist In Spite of All Recent ‘Official’ Explanations

The Dexter Leader: March 31, 1966

Dexter Police Officer Robert Hunawill Releases First Photos of Strange Aerial Phenomena Sighted

BAFFLING LIGHTS in the sky appear in this photo taken Thursday, Marcg 24 by Dexter Policeman Robert Hunawill. Hunawill this this photo was taken on Huron River Dr., beyond Zeeb Rd., near Hudson Mills Park, at approximately 10:30 p.m. This photo, an automatic time exposure of approximately 10 seconds, was taken on Tri-X 35 mm film. The objects were high in the sky and moving, according to Hunawill, which could account for the streaks of light. Three other persons, including Mrs. Hunawill, Richard Alexa and Duane Brussow also saw the lights, which they describe as distinctly white, change to blue and red. Dr. William P. Bidelman, University of Michigan professor of astronomy, says the photo is “completely baffling if the objects actually did appear in the sky.”

Stars, spaceships or saucers?

The question mark remains following nearly three weeks of sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO’s) throughout the area. (A UFO is defined as any aerial object which the observer is unable to identify.)

An investigation by the Air Force expert on unidentified objects, Dr. J Allen Hynek, brought forth the explanation that two of the sightings over marshes were “swamp gas.” His explanation brought forth a storm of controversy.

Marsh or swamp gas is produced by rotting vegetation. Dr. Hynek explained that this gas can be trapped by ice and winter conditions and may be released in some quantity when a spring thaw occurs. No heat is felt and the lights do not burn or char the ground; they can appear for hours at a time and sometimes for a whole night; generally there is no smell and usually no sound, except the popping of little explosions, he said. Sometimes the lights are on the ground and sometimes floating above it.

Numerous recent reports of UFO’s have not occurred near swamp areas, however, and Dr. Hynek made no attempt to explain those sightings.

Skeptics Become Believers

Many local skeptics have changed their opinions when they have themselves sighted UFO’s.

Dexter Village Clerk Harry Peters said he has taken a lot of teasing since his experience Sunday evening. Fortunately, Peters has three other witnesses who confirm his story.

Peters, Mr. and Mrs. William (Gordie) Keogh and Dean Hudson all watched an object Sunday night through a pair of binoculars.

They sighted a large bright object about 200 feet in the sky south of North Territorial Rd., between Webster Church Rd. and Jennings Rd., at approximately 9:15 p.m.

“At first we thought it was a meteorite,” Peters said, but five minutes later it appeared to be standing still at a height of about 200, 250 feet,” he added.

Then Mrs. Koegh said, “That thing must be back.” She said that she and her husband had seen the same sort of light last Thursday night and had also noticed something similar a year before.

Peters described the light as “steady white light, not on and off or pulsating as others had described.” After hovering for several minutes, it came straight down toward the earth, he said, and went below the tree level not more than 500 yards away.

STRANGE LIGHTS: Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hunawill saw these strange lights in the sky on Baker Rd., near Nuttle Tool & Die, between 12 and 1 a.m. Monday morning, March 28. The instantaneous photo was taken by Hunawill, who said the lights were moving all the time. The lights were observed for “five or 10 minutes at the most,” according to Hunawill, who added that each time he has seen a group of white lights, such as this group, one of the objects has always had three red lights. In looking at the photo, Dr. William B. Bidelman, University of Michigan professor of astronomy, said that if the brighter lights had been on the bottom of the photo, rather than in a vertical pattern as shown, and as Officer Hunawill says he saw them, the bright lights might possibly have been on the ground and the photographer would have seen “light pillars,” or reflections of ground lights in the sky. Under a magnifying glass, some of the bright objects appear to have dark rings around them, which Dr. Bidelman said “could be branches of trees.” If in fact the lights were in the sky and not reflections, Dr. Bidelman sees no obvious interpretation of the picture.

The light hovered behind the trees long enough for all four viewers to look at it twice through binoculars, Peters said.

The very bright lights continued, Peters added, but on the rights side three flashing orange-red lights, blinking in a series “like a theater marquee,” appeared and on the opposite side three “blue, green or aqua” lights also blinking in a series, appeared.

Peters estimated the red and green lights to be 18-20 feet apart.

The lights hovered below the tree level, then moved from right to left, then rose above the tree level and did the same thing. This process was repeated several times before the lights rose in the air and disappeared.

The observers also watch an airplane to the south through the binoculars and said the lights on the plane “definitely had a different pattern.”

The strange lights appeared over farmland, the quartet said, and although there is a lake in the vicinity, there is no swamp in the area.

“We don’t know what we saw,” Peters said. “Because of the darkness we couldn’t see any definite shape or form but I do think some mass was behind the lights. It definitely wasn’t a reflection or swamp gas.”

“I’ve been getting a lot of kidding,” Peters said, “but if our description will help clear up this mystery, go ahead and print it.”

Other reports have flooded into the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office.

National Action Requested

U.S. Representative Weston E. Vivian (D-Second Congressional District), a physicist and an engineer, commented that turbine high-lift helicopters with a shape similar to that seen on the Frank Mannor farm near Dexter are now in use, as are “vertical lift aircraft” which rotates either its engine or wings to lift off the ground. The armed services are also testing “flying platforms” or ducted fan lifters which rise on a column of air, Vivian added. Last week Congressman Vivian requested a statement or explanation from the Defense Department.

INVESTIGATION INTO UFO’s continued last week when Dr. J. Allen Hynek, UFO investigator for the U. S. Air Force and astrophysicist and professor of astronomy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., came to Chelsea last Thursday to talk to Chelsea Police Officers Charles Sharpe and Clyde Myers. Discussing the sightings in the Chelsea Restaurant are, from left, Sgt. Dave Moody, UFO investigator from Wright-Patterson AFB, O., Dr. Hynek, Cpt. Ramby of Selfridge AFB, who aided Dr. Hynek in his investigation, and Officer Sharpe.

U.S. Representative Gerald R. Ford (R-Fifth Congressional District) later proposed that a Congressional committee investigate the UFO’s. He says that the Air Force investigations have brushed it all aside as the result of delusions or “have come up with nothing conclusive.”

Dr. William P. Bidelman, University of Michigan astronomer, offered the opinion that Congress find something tangible to investigate before they launch an investigation.

The United States Congress has been reluctant to investigate the UFO’s. If an investigation is launched, Congress will appear to give credence to the idea that there is more to the UFO sightings than mistaken sighting of natural or manmade objects. To refuse to investigate opens Congress to the charge that the Government knows what the UFO’s are but is covering up.

Congressman Ford suggested the investigations be launched by the House Armed Services or the Science and Astronautics Committee. Spokesmen for both committees have been reported as expressing reluctance to undertake an investigation.

On Tuesday, Congressman Lucien N. Nedzi (D-Fourteenth District) was reported to have joined Congressman Ford in his quest for a Congressional investigation.

Nationally syndicated columnist Rosecoe Drummond called Monday for a probe of the “flying saucers” by a “Warren-type commission” and quoted the National investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomenon, a private group headed by a retired Naval Academy Marine Corps pilot, as listing some 8,000 reports during the past 10 years, of which 1,500 seem “pretty substantial and unexplained.” The Air Force has received 10,147 reports and states 646 are unexplained.

Another nationally syndicated columnist, Sydney Harris, commented tongue-in-cheek, that “Any truly intelligent beings from another galaxy would not touch us with a ten-light-year pole. We are quite capable of attacking ourselves without their help.”

Dr. Bidelman Comments

Many bright stars are visible this time of year, according to one astronomer, and some of these may be mistaken for UFO’s.

Dr. Bidelman commented that Jupiter is visible in the early evening at this time of year and appears very bright. Sirius, the brightest star, may be seen fairly low in the sky in the early evening and often appears to change colors. Venus rises early in the morning, he said, and is a very bright star.

Reflections off cloud layers frequently appear in the sky, he added, as do mirages, in which objects on the ground appear to be in the sky.

A great variety of phenomenon have been observed, he said, and there is a tendency to try to explain all the phenomena as being the same thing.

He mentioned that the eastern part of the night sky is much lighter than the western part of the sky because of reflected lights from Detroit, and that this may mislead some observers.

A very real question as to whether intelligent life does exist on other planets is being debated by scientists and astronomers today, Dr. Bidelman said. Very possibly some life does exist in another solar system, but most astronomers and scientists in general do not believe anything reported thus far can be explained only in terms of flying saucers, he added.

“It’s like trying to prove the existence or non-existence of ghosts,” Dr. Bidelman said. “Some people believe in them but can’t prove their existence and others do not believe in them but can not prove that they absolutely do not exist.”

Jeane Dixon, well-known Washington, D.C. prophetess who achieve national fame when she predicted in 1952 that President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated, has said that she received no “atmospheric vibrations” that Michigan UFO’s are extraterrestrial.

One group with the difficult task of collecting tangible information on UFO’s is The United States Air Force.

Project Blue Book

The Air Force started Project Blue Book in 1948 to determine whether UFO’s pose a threat to the security of the United States and whether they exhibit and unique scientific information or advanced technology which could contribute to scientific or technical research.

Project Blue Book’s firm conclusions to date are that 1) no UFO reported, investigated and evaluated by the Air Force has ever given any indication of threat to national security, 2) no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force of sightings categorized as unidentified represent any technological developments or principles beyond the range of present day scientific knowledge and 3) no evidence indicates unidentified sightings are extraterrestrial vehicles.

Anyone who feels he possesses any evidence of extraterrestrial vehicles operating within the earth’s near space envelope is invited to submit his evidence to: Project Blue Book Information Office, SAFOI, Washington, D.C., 20330.

In a pamphlet describing Project Blue Book, the following statement appears:

“The Air Force does not seek to limit discussion on such reports and does not withhold or censor any information pertaining to this unclassified program.”

In 1965, only 16 objects were unidentified out of a total 886 sighted. Of the remaining 870, 245 were astronomical, 210 were aircraft, 36 were balloons, 85 reports contained insufficient data, 126 were classified as “other,” 152 were satellites, and 17 were still pending.

Astronomical cases include solar images, moon, sun, reflected moonlight, parhelia (mock suns or bright spots often tinged with color, at the altitude of the sun), meteors, bright stars and planets, comet ikeyn-seki, fireballs, auroral streamers and other celestrial bodies. The pamphlet explains that when observed through haze, light fog, moving clouds or other obscurations or unusual conditions, the planets, including Venus, Jupiter and Mars, have been reported as UFO’s.

Included in the “other” category were hoaxes, hallucinations, unreliable reports and psychological causes, missiles and rockets, reflections, flares and fireworks, mirages and inversions, search and ground lights, clouds and contrails, chaff, birds, physical specimens, radar analysis, satellite decay and miscellaneous.

Included in the miscellaneous data are tracer bullets, misinterpretation of conventional objects, metal balls, developer smear, anomalous propagations, kites, electronic counter measures, debris in wind, no image on film, poor photo process, free falling objects, false targets, weather returns, emulsion flaws, plastic bags, man on ground, lightning, chemical trails, research rocket and missile launch activity.

Satellites and aircraft account for a major source of UFO reports, according to Project Blue Book. During adverse weather, aircraft can have appearances ranging from disc to rocket shapes due to the reflection of the sun on their bright surfaces when observed at high altitudes. Vapor or condensation trails from jet aircraft also occasionally reflect sunlight.

Balloons, including weather, rawinsondes, radiosondes, and large research balloons which have diameters up to 300 feet, often carry running lights which cause an unusual appearance when observed. Reflection of the sun on the balloons at dawn and sunset sometimes produces strange effects and large balloons can move as speeds of more than 100 miles per hour in high altitude jet windstreams. They sometimes appear to be flattened on top, at other times, they appear to be saucer-shaped and to have lights mounted inside the bag itself due to the sun’s rays reflecting through the material of the balloon.

UFO Interest Brings Requests for Leader From Widespread Area

Dozens of requests have been received for The Dexter Leader by persons intrigued by the apparent favoritism shown the Dexter area by the current appearances of UFO’s. Maybe they feel more at home here and are really small-town Martians who are shunning the smog, traffic, congestion, and lack of foliage found in our metropolitan areas. Or maybe they couldn’t find a place to place in Ann Arbor.

Anyway, requests have been received from such places as Boonville, Mo., Omaha, Neb., Addison, Ill., Mansifled, O., Hardonfield, N.J., Schenectady, N.Y., Loveland, Calif., Hartford, Conn., Haverton, Pa., ect.

Many of these places may be new to us but Dexter, which has received national and world recognition due to the “weird sightings,” has officially been put on the map.

Police Chief Taylor says weekend tourists stopped for information on the UFOs and many country residents report their unpaved roads were like freeways all weekend.

The Great Michigan UFO Chase of 1966- part 4

Spotted Again in Dexter Area

The Dexter Leader: March 24, 1966.

Though descriptions vary, it is certain some kind of unidentified objects were sighted in the Dexter area again Sunday night between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.

Dexter Police Officer Robert Hunawill heard the report to the Washtenaw county Sheriff’s Department and rushed to the Frank Mannor residence near the end of McGinnis Rd. Since he had previously viewed the strange objects last week, Hunawill stopped by and picked-up his wife so she could also see them for herself.

Hunawill described the objects as having red, white and blue lights, no motor noise, having an appearance of coral rock and one was either on the ground in the march near the Mannor home or hovering just above it. He said radio reports that it had an antenna, windows and had hovered 10 feet over his car were incorrect. Four other objects hovered 100 yards above the tree tops nearby, he said.

Officer Hunawill said a strange object had also passed over Dexter but when sheriff’s deputies followed down Island Lake Rd. and shined their spotlights on it, its lights went out and it disappeared.

Approximately 14 persons repor[t]ed to police having seen the strange objects.

There is no doubt in the mind of Frank Mannor and his 19-year-old son, Ronald, that they saw the object at a distance of 500 yards.

At approximately 7:30 p.m., Mannor saw what he at first thought to be a falling star but when the object reached the trees it stopped and its blue and white lights came on. It then elevated and lowered i[t]self over one spot.

Mannor described the object as being pyramid shaped with blue and white lights on each side and having a pitted-like coral center although he could not see the top of the dome. It also appeared to have something like a yellowish colored heat waves radiating from it. He reported just seeing one object.

Ronald Mannor approached the object and yelled back, “look at that horrible thing,” and immediately the lights went out and it was gone. Very shortly the object reappeared in a nearby valley and the lights came back on. Later a weird sound, like a bullet ri[co]cheting of a rock, went over his house. Mannor said he knows it sounds crazy but that’s what he saw.

Mrs. Frank Kramer, 3430 Broad St., Dexter said she didn’t wish to discredit anyone’s story, but although she did see an area in the distance with a lighted or glowing appearance, she really didn’t see anything which [fr]ightened her or was anything that unusual. She said she also saw what to her appeared to be three planes flying low, observing the ground. One light which went to the west she knows was an airplane.

Col. Gerald Miller, Washtenaw County Civil Defense Director, was withholding comment until he actually sees the objects himself. He said he went to the area near the Mannor home around 9 p.m. and stayed for about two hours but saw nothing.

Col. Miller said that after talking to several persons who reported seeing the UFO’s, he is convinced it is either a natural phenomenon or hallucinations. He said this type of thing is contagious and he was not being stampeded into any rash statements.

Miller said all such reports are given to the USAF but that CD never receives any replies.

He doubted it was a highly classified secret object as those things always seem to leak out in the U.S.

Miller said UFO reports have been coming in since 1870 back in Kansas.

He said if anyone sights the objects they should watch it, make sure it is something different and try to get concrete evidence to give authorities.

Miller said the fact that no noise, heat, scorched area or wind pressure was apparent makes the reported objects very unlikely to him.

Radar Picks Up ‘Something’ as Sky Phantoms Return

The Detroit News: March 25, 1966.

FLYING SAUCERS?- These two streaks of light were made by the unidentified flying objects that Deputy David Fitzpatrick, of Washtenaw County, said he saw March 16. He took this picture, which was released yesterday, with a small camera using a 10-minute exposure. The lower lights are along Carpenter Road, 15 miles southeast of Ann Arbor. Fitzpatrick and other deputies watched the objects for two hours, they said.

Whatever they are, those colorful, blinking will-o-the-wispish lights that have been whisking through southeastern Michigan were back again last night.

Oakland County sheriff’s deputies said they called Selfridge Air Force Base shortly after they received about 10 calls from Milford area residents who said they saw red, white and orange objects traveling in a southwesterly direction about midnight.

Officers at Selfridge told the deputies they had picked up “something on the radar” in that area at the time of the sightings but refused to say if it could be identified or not.


Four carloads of Washtenaw County deputies watch one of them for 45 minutes last night after a call at 8:30 that it was dancing around in the sky near Delhi, four miles west of Ann Arbor.

Called out to take a look with them was Dr. H. Allen Hynek, astrophysicist from Northwestern University, sent here earlier this week by the Air Force to study and make a report on the “space visitors.”

A light “unlike an airplane” was also spotted in the vicinity of Ida, Mich., 10 miles west of Monroe.


Mrs. Robert Hutchinson, of rural Ida, phoned the Monroe County sheriff’s office to report an “orangish-red, very bright light south of Ida and moving rapidly north.”

Less that 10 minutes later a veteran special deputy sheriff, Jack Suror, phoned in from Ida an identical report, deputies in the Monroe office said.

Mrs. Jack Reynolds, a reported for the Monroe Evening News, said she saw a red and white light moving rapidly from east to west. Mrs. Reynolds lives south of Ida.


Meanwhile, a resident of the Saugatuck area, south of the Holland, Mich., told the Allegan County sheriff’s office that an unidentified flying object swooped across a highway more than 100 to 200 feet high.

Robert Nichols, 24, said the object, about half the side of an automobile, was “a round circle glowing red on the inside.”

“It sure didn’t look like any airplane,” he said.

Almost as elusive as the lights is Dr. Hynek. With him are two Air Force men. A deputy sheriff in Ann Arbor said he has never seen the astrophysicist who arrived in the state Tuesday.

He didn’t know where Hynek had visited and said he understood the scientist was staying in Ann Arbor, but didn’t know where.

The Air Force has promised a report on the objects today.

Maj. Hector Quintanilla, of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, said Hynek’s investigation is “beginning to shape up … we hope to have a reasonable explaination sometime today.”


Law enforcement agencies got numerous calls through the night from residents made nervous by the many reports of strange goings on in the sky.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls, but when we check them out we find that they’re airplanes.”

Monroe County deputies solved one “flying saucer” mystery yesterday.

They answered a call to a home where a woman thought a humming she heard might be from the flying object. It turned out to be a truck parked nearby.

The Great Michigan UFO Chase of 1966- part 3

The Saucers Take a Night Off

The Detroit News: By Morgan O’Leary

DEXTER, Mich., March 22- A violinist tried music and a scientist used an intellectual approach, but nothing could entice Michigan’s mysterious “phantom airships” down to earth last night.

Even the jeers of the unbelievers among hundreds of persons who spent the night sky-watching failed to bring a reappearance of the strange glowing objects various persona report have been flying around over the Ann Arbor area.

One man played a violin, another flashed a “universal” mathematical equation and others stated hopefully skyward from campsites as the search for the objects centered in a marshy area seven miles northwest of Ann Arbor.

While Washtenaw County skies were bare, several Wayne County residents reported seeing what they thought were flying saucers.

A Nankin Township housewife said she saw a bright light “like a star” shortly after 7 p.m. that “kept going round and round like a top, with the light blinking on and off real fast.”

A Detroit woman, Loan Blacklern, 18675 Wexford, reported about the same time that she saw something “white with a reddish glow” that brightened and dimmed as it spun.

At the same time, two teenage boys reported similar sightings in the vicinity of the Michigan State Fairgrounds and a woman said she saw something that looked like “a black egg” streaking through the sky over Taylor Township.

But the concentrated search centered around the intersections of Brand and Quigley roads, about five miles north of here.

Sunday night Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputies and residents played hide and seek with the phantoms that skimmed the countryside.

By yesterday, believers and nonbelievers converged on the area where a farmer and his son said they saw one of the saucers in a swamp near their home.

A scientist from the University of Michigan arrived after dark and sat in his car blinking his headlights in code.


Three blinks – stop – one blink – stop – four blinks – stop.

The man explained his was the code for the universal equation – pi – which is known throughout the universe and could be understood by the unearthly creatures piloting the saucers.

Others sought evidence of the saucers’ visit.

Mrs. Terry Barr, of Bloomfield Hills, and her daughter, Bobbie, 16, led an expedition of a dozen persons into the swamp area despite the driving rain.

The group discovered a round, darkened area of grass.

“That’s where it must have landed,” said Bobbie.

The rest of the group agreed with her.

A Detroit electronics engineer, John Maxfield, 24, brought a short-wave set with him to test reports that radio signals had not been disrupted during Sunday’s sightings.

He explained there was a chance that the reputed saucers might be in the 10 percent he considers unexplainable as hoaxes or atmospheric freaks.


The first to arrive shortly after dark were two University of Michigan graduate chemistry students loaded with camera gear.

While one of them set up a camera with a telescope lens, the other said he felt the government was to blame.

“There can only be so many hoaxes,” he said. “I think there has been a government censorship of what is happening. So many people have seen them. There has to be something up there.”

Some searchers were very young, such as three-year-old Renee Scott, of Chelsea, who “brought her parents” to see the flying saucer and who knew they were piloted by space people with “green, yellow and orange hair.”

Those who came to the intersection after dark failed to notice the huge radio telescope about three-quarters of a mile from the intersection on Peach Mountain.


Deputies say that the telescopes- which look very similar to the descriptions of the sighted “saucers”- are clearly visible from the swampland where the saucer seemed to hover.

Experts at the University of Michigan who operate the telescopes said they are just as mystified as anyone else. They said the telescopes were not operating when the phantom ships were sighted.

Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas J. Harvey hurriedly conferred with Rep. Weston E. Vivian, Ann Arbor Democrat, before the congressman left for Washington.

Like many others, Sheriff Harvey wasn’t sure of what is involved, but he is becoming uneasy about possible law enforcement problems growing out of the sightings.


“I’m no believer in flying saucers,” he said, “but I’m afraid of this thing causing a panic. People are getting all shook up.

“At first I thought it was a big joke. It’s still hard for me to believe it, and now it’s getting a bit serious.”

Yesterday afternoon, Harvey armed Detective Harold Kerr with a Geiger counter and sent him into the swampy ground behind the Frank Mannor farm to check for excessive radiation of other unusual signs.

The search turned up nothing- no burned grass, no crushed foliage, no heavy depressions in the swampy ground.


Some of the area’s saucer sleuths are eagerly awaiting the processing of pictures taken by sheriff’s deputies last week, during earlier sightings.

Deputy David Fitzpatrick said he took some shots last Thursday “at a distance of miles” from a similar object he reported seeing, using a 16-millimeter vest-pocket “spy” camera.

But the special film must be processed at the camera company’s facility in Forest Hills, N.Y., and Harvey said it will be two weeks before the roll is returned.

Among the witnesses who contacted the sheriff’s department yesterday with claims of having seen the mysterious objects was Roy Cassidy, 32, who lives in Hamburg Township, about 10 miles north of the mannor farm.

“I know people will think I am crazy,” he told deputies, “but so help me, I saw them. And I have too little imagination to dream this up.”


Cassidy said he was out walking his dog when he spotted three objects sporting multicolored, flashing lights, off to the east.

Among those who turned into believers was Deputy Stanley McFadden, of the Washtenaw County sheriff’s department.

“If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it,” said McFadden, who was one of the officers who went into the swamp behind the Mannor home, shortly after the first sightings were reported.

After a talk with Mannor, McFadden said, “I don’t believe he was giving us a story. Both he and his son were pretty scared- they were telling us the truth all right.”

Mannor, 47, and his son Ronald, 19, called police after sighting the strange lights in back of their rented  farm home, 10600 McGuiness, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.


Harvey said that the same general description had been given by everyone who claimed to have seen the objects, with the flashing multicolored lights the dominant feature.

“If it were only one officer that had seen it,” Harvey said, “I’d think he was suffering from midnight fatigue, but too many others saw it.

“I might even think that all my men were a bit daffy, but deputies from Monroe, Livingston and Jackson counties reported seeing these objects too.”

A Chrysler Corp. spokesman said the auto firm is no doing any work on a vehicle that could be mistaken as a flying saucer.

Chrysler, which does missile and space work for the government, has a test facility at Chelsea, west of Dexter.


Chicago Expert to Help AF Sift Saucer Reports

An expert of flying objects is being brought to Michigan by the Air Force to investigate the reports of unidentified flying objects near Dexter, Selfridge Air Force Base officials announces today.

Dr. J. Allen Hynek, chairman of the Dearborn Observatory of Western University, near Chicago, and scientific consultant to the Air Force Project Blue Book, was to arrive today.

Project Blue Book is the title of the Air Force effort to investigate all unidentified flying objects.

Dr. Hynek will assist Sellridge officials in investigating reports of the sightings.

Photo Adds New Wrinkle to Saucers

The Detroit News: By Douglas Bradford, March 23, 1966.

This is what Paul Richwine’s camera saw when he pointed it at the unidentified flying object.

While Air Force officials prowled through the countryside looking for some sign of the strange night visitors that have been zipping through southeastern Michigan skies, a Monroe area came up with what he said was a picture of one.

Paul Richwine, 16, who lives in woolland Beach, three miles north of Monroe, produces a piece of film with a blob on it that he says his camera “saw” when he pointed it at a “flying saucer” over his home Friday night.

Detroit News photographers say the blob could be due to a wrinkle in the film.

But Paul and his mother, Mrs. Mariannice Richwine, insist that they saw strange glowing objects cavorting in the sky and that the dark area on the picture represents one of them.

The object in the picture doesn’t seem to have much material substance.

Neither Paul nor his mother can account for the fact that the thing they saw was bright and shiny with flashing colored lights while the camera recorded a dark smear.

Paul said his Argus F100 was on time exposure at 12.8 and was loaded with fast film when he took the picture at about 11:30 p.m. Friday.

The News photographers conceded that the darkness in the picture “might” be the indication of something moving quite swiftly on a time exposure, or the blob could be a water spot on the negative or a wrinkle in the film.

Mrs. Richwine said the object’s appearance was preceded by four glowing shapes about 10:30 p.m. Friday. She saw them from her front window, she said.

The “phantom visitors” moved soundlessly in their vision for an hour, bobbing high in the sky, and all of them glowing red with a white tip, Mrs. Richwine said.

The Richwines said the phantom resembled a “fat triangle,” a description that fits those given by residents of the Dexter, Mich., area, where the Air Force investigation is under way.

Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astrophysicist and UFO (unidentified flying objects) project consultant, was asked to visit the Dexter area, northwest of Ann Arbor and study reports of the strange objects.

The UFO office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio, asked Dr. Hynek to investigate yesterday.

Maj. Hector Quintanilla, project officer, said Dr. Hynek will conduct interviews and assist officials at Selfridge AFB, in gathering information.

The last Dexter sighting Sunday night brought hundreds of persons, many with cameras and binoculars, to the area Monday night. No sightings were reported but, 65 miles southwest of Ann Arbor, at Hillsdale, a group of college co-eds watched an object for several hours.

William Van Horn, civil defense director of Hillsdale County, said yesterday the flying object he observed east of Hillsdale Monday night was “definitely some type of vehicle.”

He said the object he and the girls saw was about 20 feet across but that its boundaries were indistinguishable.

The Great Michigan UFO Chase of 1966- part 2

Washtenaw ‘Spaceships’ Elude Pursuers

The Detroit News: By Jerome Aumente

After sightings, the witnesses put together this composite drawing at the Washtenaw County sheriff’s headquarters, showing the lights, surface and antenna.

DEXTER, Michigan, March 21.- Mysterious flying objects emitting strange sounds and lights were pursued by police and civilians last night, including a man who said he and his son ran to within 500 yards of a bizarre vehicle near their home.

Vivid eyewitness accounts from at least a dozen sources, with facts that dovetailed, threw an unearthly pall on this small community seven miles northwest of Ann Arbor.

The witnesses included:

  • A man and his son who ran into swampland behind their home in pursuit of strange lights and said they came within sight of a triangular-shaped vehicle hovering above the ground, which suddenly disappeared.
  • Dexter police officers who said they watched the lights through field glasses and one patrolman who said a round object with flashing lights hovered above a scout car and joined a second vehicle flying in formation.
  • Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputies and detectives who surrounded the lighted objects and pursued them at high speed along country roads.

A spokesman at Selfridge Air Force Base said there was no military activity in the Dexter area and that reports of the sightings have be sent to higher commands for study.

A special office has been set up at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, to study such reports.

Dexter Patrolman Robert Huniwell said he spotted an object in the sky at Quigley and Brand roads between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m.

He said the flying object, with red and green flashing lights, came close to the ground, hovered above a scout car and was joined by a second vehicle on its ascent.

Huniwell said the object had antenna-like devices on the side, along with the lights.

Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas Harvey ordered all available deputies to the scene and six patrol cars, two men each, and three detectives surrounded the area.

They later chased a flying object along Island Lake road without catching it.

Near the scene is the University of Michigan’s radio telescope, which is used to learn more about planets and stars.

This telescope uses an 85-foot-diameter antenna to pick up radio waves from space.

It is located about 14 miles northwest of Ann Arbor, within a few miles of where the objects were seen. University officials said no one was using the telescope at the time of the sightings.

FRANK MANNOR Tells of Strange Lights

Frank Mannor, of 10600 McGuiness road, said he was with members of his family in their rented farmhouse quarters at 7:30 p.m. when he first saw the lights.

“I just walked outside and it looked like a fallen star,” Mannor said. “It went to the top of the trees- all red- then blue lights, then a white light.”

Mannor called his son, Ronald, 18, and they rand toward the lights in swampland behind the house. Mannor’s wife, Leona, and daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Merkle, stayed at the house and awaited police.

Mannor and his son ran toward the lights and watched them trying to rise from the ground.

Mannor said:

“I got within 500 yards of that thing and it looked pyramid-shaped. It had a light here and a light there and what looked like a porthole.

“It wasn’t like the pictures of a flying saucer and it had a coral-like surface. I’ve trapped every hole in this county and never seen anything like it.”

Mannor said the vehicle, by its own lights, resembled the length of a car and had a hazy mist under it as it hung above the ground.

Mannor described his son’s reaction:

“He said, ‘Look at that horrible thing there, Dad,’ and the lights went out.”

Mannor produced a sketch he made in a notebook. It was the pyramid shape with hills in the back. The hills would be near Territorial road, where by now the sheriff’s scout cars had pulled up.

“The light was there, and there was the haze,” Mannor said, pointing to his drawing, “and in here it looked like a heat wave. It had a brownish-looking surface.”

Mannor and his son, a member of the Dexter High School track team, ran around toward the point where the lights had been, but the vehicle was gone. Mannor said that, a few seconds later he saw the red lights half a mile away.

Dexter Police Chief Robert R. Taylor and son, Robert D., saw the mysterious flying objects from different places, but both describe the same flashing red and white lights.


Mrs. Mannor, who had remained at the house, said:

“You could see it rise from the ground and hit the treetop awhile and fall back to the ground.

“It would become different colors, white on the ground, blue, then red, in the trees, and then come down and change color again.”

Mannor and his wife said that when he later returned to the house they heard a high-pitched screeching over the roof.

“It sounded like a ricochet of a bullet,” Mannor said. “Down in the swamp it sounded like a siren. But it a real high frequency up here.”

Dexter Police Chief Robert Taylor and Policeman N. G. Lee had rushed to the Mannor house in response to the call.

“We saw it from the hill; it looked like it was down in the swamp,” Taylor said. “We saw the red glow in the swamp and with the binoculars we could see it. It was a pulsating red light.

“We couldn’t see anything but the lights. When we got into the swamp there wasn’t anything there. When our flashlights came toward it, it disappeared. We heard a noise.”


“Waaaah- I thought it was an ambulance,” Lee said, trying to imitate the sound. This was shortly after 9 p.m., when they had responded to the call.

Chief Taylor’s son, Robert, 16, said that at 10:30 p.m. he observed the red-lit vehicle in the sky.

“It was going off in the east, pretty slow, then sped up and went west,” he said. “It was flashing red and white.”

“there have been a couple of other reports last week,” the police chief said of the sightings. “The midnight patrolman saw it. They saw three or four in formation around the center of town.”

BUFORD BUSHROE ‘Lost It in Trees’


Washtenaw County Deputy Sheriff BuFord Bushroe, one of the men who responded to the Mannor call, said he was returning to Ann Arbor about 11 p.m. along Dexter-Town Hall road.

“I didn’t see the one that landed, but at 11:15 p.m. we were heading back into Ann Arbor when I looked up to the south and saw three bluish green, brilliant red and white lights,” Bushroe said.

“It looked like an arc. It was round. We turned around and started following it through Dexter for five miles. It was headed west and we stopped.


“We lost it in the trees. Either the lights went off or it took off with tremendous burst of speed. It was about 1,500 feet above the ground. It moved along at about 100 miles an hour. We were doing 70 (before losing it) and it stayed well ahead of us”

The chase took Bushroe and his companion along Dexter-Ann Arbor road to Island Lake Road, where it disappeared near Wylie road.

Washtenaw Detective Capt. Harold Kerr and Charles J. Anderson also reported chasing the flying objects.

Washtenaw Deputy Sherrif David Fitzpatrick, one of the men who ran into the swamp on foot earlier in the evening said: “The only thing we saw was a brilliant light. By the time we got there it disappeared.”


Carloads of college students from the nearby University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti converged on the area after radio reports of the sightings.

Mannor was asked if the thing he saw and the lights might have been a college prank, and he vigorously denied the possibility.

“I hunt that land and I know it like the back of my hand,” he said. “They couldn’t rig rigging to it. There was no anything there. There was no way in the world to get out. There were two scout cats on the hill and more at the house.”

Mannor, who is accustomed to the sounds of moving brush a hunter, said he would have heard anyone running away.


“I know every pothole in this country,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been in Mexico, the Mojave Desert, everywhere.

“There’s nothing wrong with my eyes and my son has 20-20 vision. We both can’t be wrong.”

At Washtenaw County sheriff’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, the men put together their reports and prepared a composite drawing from the various descriptions. Several other sightings have been reported in recent days.

At his house, on a deserted country road, Mannor, a rugged-faced man, and his wife tried to make some sense of the previous hours.

“My wife said we’ll move out of here,” he said. “She doesn’t like that. I never lock the doors. Nothing here to bother us.”

The Great Michigan UFO Chase of 1966- part 1

In preparation of the upcoming Michigan Skeptic Meetup on March 12th where we will have a presentation on the UFO sighting in Michigan 45 years ago, over the next week I’ll be posting actual newspaper articles that chronicle the events that took place in March, 1966. I dug up these articles after visiting the Dexter Library and the University of Michigan Library. I find the whole story interesting. I hope you do too. Enjoy!

7 Police Officers Spot Mystery Flying Objects

The Detroit News: ANN ARBOR, March 14.- Mysterious flying objects, flashing bluish-green and red lights reportedly maneuvered over Washtenaw and Livingston counties for two hours early today.

The phenomenon was witnessed by seven police officers in the two counties.

The objects were first spotted by Washtenaw Deputies Budford Bushroe and John Foster, riding in a patrol car southwest of Ann Arbor.

“At first, it was just one,” Bushroe said, “It looked like a bluish green star with red flashes. It would swing back and forth like a pendulum, then shoot upward at tremendous speed, hover and then come down just as fast.”

The deputies watched it for 15 minutes, then took off to the northwest to pursue it.

As they neared the county line near Pickney, Bushroe said, three similar objects joined the first and engaged in similar maneuvers.

The deputies contacted a Dexter village two-man patrol car and a Livingston County car manned by two deputies to ask them to look for the objects.

The other four police officers reported that they saw the same maneuvers.

Howell Patrolman Charles Mason, hearing a report of the incident on the police radio, went to the highest point nearby point, the I-96 overpass, near the city, saw a similar object.

Mason said it seemed to be flying low but Bushroe said the objects he saw seemed at least 10,000 feet up.

All of the officers agreed that the objects were traveling at tremendous speed.

The first sighting of the phenomenon was at about 3:30 a.m. the last about 5:30 a.m.

Landing of ‘Saucer’ Reported

The Ann Arbor News: March 21, 1966.

LANSING UPD- Fredrick E. Davids state police commissioner and Michigan civil defense chief, said today he is launching an investigation into reports of unidentified flying objects near Ann Arbor.

“I used to discount these reports, too, but now I’m not so sure,” Davids said.

By William B. Treml

“Washtenaw County, which in the past week has become the “flying saucer center of the Midwest, again was in the news spotlight last night with a flurry of “saucer” reports, including one of which said an object had actually landed in Dexter Township.

More than 40 police officers from the Sheriff’s Department, Dexter and Chelsea village Police Departments, and State Police joined area residents in a prolonged but futile search for the “landed” craft. However, more than a half-dozen of the searchers said they saw strange flying objects or lights from the objects during the five-hour hunt.

The report which began the massive search came from Robert Wagner of Dexter and Frank Manner who lives on a farm at 10600 McGinnis in Dexter Township. Wagner told sheriff’s deputies at 8:30 p.m. yesterday that a strange flying object appeared to land in a swampy area on the McGinnis property at the intersection of Quigley and Brand Rds. That intersection is just south of W. North Territorial Rd. and east of the Dexter Town Hall Rd., about five miles north and west of the village of Dexter.

Manner, 46, said he and his 18-year-old son, Ronald, went out in search of the landed object moments after they said they saw it descend to the ground.

Manner said he and his son saw an object in the swamp which appeared to be brown in color and had a “quilted” effect on the surface. It was flat on the bottom and cone-shaped toward the top, Manner related.

There were two small lights at the outer edges of the object which issued a glowing bluish-green color, he said. That color intensified and turned brilliant red at times.

Several times when the object became brightly lighted, the entire object was yellow-white in color and the light ran horizontally between the two outer “running” lights, Manner said. A the Manners watched, the small lights at the edge of the craft suddenly went out and in an instant the object appeared across the swamp about 500 yards away from its original position, deputies were told.

When flashlights used by approaching deputies touched the area, the light from the object became very bright and then completely out, Mann[o]rs said.

“We then heard the sound of a whistle – something like a rifle bullet makes when it richochets off something,” Mann[o]r said. “Then this object went up in the air, passed directly over us and disappeared.”

Patrolman Robert Hunawill of the Dexter Village Police Department said he saw what appeared to be the same object which baffled the Mann[o]rs. Hunawill parked his scout car at the Quigley-Brand intersections, while Dexter Police Chief Robert Taylor and Patrolman Noolan Lee entered the search area with sheriff’s deputies.

Hunawill said the object suddenly appeared over his patrol car at a height of about 1,000 feet. The object had white and red lights on it which at times had a bluish tinge. It hovered over the scout car and then made continuing sweeps over the swamp where the first object had been reported down, Hunawill said.

He said he watched it for five to 10 minutes before it was joined by three other objects and the objects flew in  formation in two’s with one set flying high above the second two. They all finally disappeared into the sky, Hunawill said.

Later Uniformed Sheriff’s Deputies Stanley McFadden and David Fitzpatrick reported shining a searchlight from their scout car on one of the objects. The officers had taken part in the swamp search near Quigley Rd., had seen the brilliant white-red light and were patrolling on N. Territorial Rd, near Mast Rd. after the light disappeared.

Suddenly, a strange, lighted object appeared overhead and the deputies immediately turned on a spotlight on their cruiser and aimed it at the object.

From what we could see the object was as large as a small house, kind of pushed down flat,” said McFadden, a veteran of seven years police work with the Ann Arbor Police Department and the Sherrif’s Department. “It had red-green lights on it and movements which count not possibly be made by any aircraft I’ve heard of.”

McFadden and Fitzpatrick said that as they watched, the object it suddenly turned and disappeared to the north. After that report, Sheriff’s Detectives Charles J. Anderson and Harold Kerr who had been called to the Quigley-Brand area by Sheriff Douglas J. Harvey were returning to headquarters when they spotted another strange object in the sky over Island Lake Rd. They pursued the object westward until it disappeared.

Chelsea village police also reported seeing unidentified flying objects near the village, with Patrolman Charles Sharp reporting he pursued one of the objects in his scout car but lost it.

The sheriff said his men found no evidence of a landing having been made in the Dexter Township area.

“If there actually is some type of flying object now making periodic visits, this theory of one coming down for a brief moment and others hovering over the area for protection seems logical,” the sheriff said. “Right now we’re no discounting anything.”

The original point of last night’s sightings was at almost the exactly the spot where Charles Wiedman of 5911 Madden Rd., Dexter Township, reported a flying object more than five years ago.

Wiedman and his son ran from their farm house one night when they saw a lighted object come down in an area near their home. Wiedman later told sheriff’s men the object took off almost straight upward when they approached it and disappeared.

Arsenate-Tolerant Bacteria from Mono Lake. Part 1: Another Perspective

Figure 1: Metabolism of arsenic compounds in bacteria

Arsenic (As) is widely distributed in the lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. Discovered in 1250 by Albertus Magnus, it has since become synonymous with poison. As, the 33 element on the periodic table, falls just below phosphorus (P), meaning that As shares physicochemical properties with that of P, and hence explains some of the toxic characteristic of arsenic species, including arsenite, H2As(III)O3, and arsenate, H2As(V)O4. Arsenate (analogous to phosphate, H2PO4) is taken up via the phosphate transport system and is incorporated into phosphorylation reactions. The mode of toxicity of arsenate is to partially block protein synthesis and interfere with protein phosphorylation. Arsenite inactivates many enzymes because of its high affinity for thiol (-SH) groups (e.g. the amino acid, cysteine) on proteins. Microorganisms typically deal with arsenic compounds by means of methyltransferases to convert the inorganic arsenic compounds into the methylated compounds (see Figure 1). These methylated compounds can then recognized by transport pumps and excreted outside of the microorganism. This type of metabolism of arsenic compounds effectively allows microorganisms to be tolerant of elevated arsenic levels in its surrounding environment.

Last December, the journal Science, one of the most influential scientific journals, published an article by Dr. Virginia Wolfe-Simon et al. reporting the isolation of an arsenic-tolerant bacterium from the lake bottom of Mono Lake, California. Mono Lake has no outlet to the ocean and therefore has a high pH (alkaline), salt and mineral content including a relatively high arsenic concentration (~0.015 grams/liter). In a 2009 publication, Wolfe-Simon et al. predicted that

As-based life could even survive today in restricted pockets where As is present in abundance, such as shallow and deep-sea hydrothermal systems or at Mono Lake.

As far as predictions go, this was curiously accurate. Discovering an arsenic-tolerant bacterium is not novel as a number of them are known. What caught the attention of the scientific community and news media was the claim that this bacterium, named GFAJ-1,

show[ed] evidence for arsenate in macromolecules that normally contain phosphate, most notably nucleic acids and proteins.

A bold claim since the accepted building blocks of Life includes just six major elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus) complemented by other trace elements, typically metals, used as cofactors. The flurry of attention, both positive and negative, in the news media and blogospheres is an interesting story in itself and has been chronicled already. The focus of this blog, however, is to examine the evidence presented by Wolfe-Simon et al. and reviews the subsequent discussion unfolding within the scientific literature. I believe this is an excellent example of how science works and we are just at the beginning of this story. Science is a self-correction process that aggregates the accumulated knowledge. It will be interesting to see what the final consensus ends up being.

A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus

The researchers first collected a sediment sample from Mono Lake in 2009. They then proceeded to culture bacteria found in the sediment using special, nutrient-depleted liquid media. Normally in a lab, microorganisms are grown in liquid cultures (think beer fermentation) supplemented with nutrients such as phosphate, sugars, amino acids, and vitamins to encourage rapid bacteria growth. In this case, the Mono Lake bacteria were cultured in a liquid media that was phosphate-depleted but rich in arsenate. (Note: According to the authors, the liquid media contained trace amounts of phosphate contamination, potentially enough trace phosphate to support cell growth). Phosphate is crucial for bacterial growth as it is a necessary building-block material for all sorts of essential molecules like ATP, G6P, NADH, NADPH, DNA and RNA. The hypothesis was that a bacterium could continue to grow in depleted media by utilizing arsenate instead of phosphate. After three months of culturing, bacteria was finally seen growing in their synthetic media and the researchers proceeded with the isolation individual strains of bacterium. One strain in particular, GFAJ-1, could tolerate especially high levels of arsenate (3.0 g/L). GFAJ-1 was identified to be a member of a strain of Halomonadaceae and not as a new species.

Figure 3: Images of GAFJ-1
Figure 2: Growth curves of GFAJ-1

In Figure 2, the graph shows the growth of GFAJ-1 in three different liquid media. The bacterium can grow rapidly when grown with phosphate-rich (no added arsenate) media, poor growth in arsenate-rich (no added phosphate) media and very little growth was seen when the media contained no added phosphate or arsenate. This was perhaps the most compelling evidence that the bacterium was utilizing the arsenate to support growth in some way. One possibility that went unexplored is that GFAJ-1 is yet another example of an arsenate-reducing, sulfide-oxidizing population of Mono Lake, California.

Figure 3 are pictures of what the bacterium looks like when grown in media that was  phosphate-rich no added arsenate (panel D), and arsenate-rich, no added phosphate (panel C). The arsenate-fed bacterium was longer and about 50% larger by volume compared to the phosphate-fed bacterium. Panel E is a cross-section of GFAJ-1 when grown in arsenate-rich media. Note the granular structures within the swollen bacterium that were presumably not present when grown in phosphate-rich media. The granules are speculated to be vacuoles filled with poly-β-hydroxybutarate (PHB). PHB is an interesting molecule as it is a naturally-made, biodegradable plastic. Future analysis of these structures was not presented. This could be a critical piece of the puzzle in understanding how the bacterium can tolerate high levels of arsenate. Interestingly, PHB vacuoles formed in arsenate-tolerant bacteria have already been seen before!

Next, they determined the overall elemental composition of the bacterium GFAJ-1 grown in either phosphate-rich (no added arsenate) or arsenate-rich (no added phosphate) media. They wanted to know the percent of atomic elements that were present within the cells. For the bacterium grown in arsenate-rich media, the cells were composed of about 0.2% arsenic and 0.02% phosphorus. The authors argue that this is not nearly enough phosphorus to support growth of a typical bacterium since a significant amount of phosphorous is needed to make up the bacterium’s genome. In contrast, the bacterium contained about 0.5% phosphorus when grown in phosphate rich media. What the authors failed to consider was whether the granules seen above skewed their reported % phosphorus levels. That is, if the mass of the granules was subtracted away from the total mass of the cells, the % phosphorus reported could have been sufficiently high enough to support growth.

It was clear that arsenic was accumulating within the cells. Where the arsenic was located within the cells was further investigation using radioactive arsenic, 73As. Radioactive compounds are often used for tracking metabolism of radiolabeled compounds as they are utilized by the cell. Extremely sensitive techniques are able to measure the radiation emitting from the  radioactive biomolecules. Cultures of GFAJ-1 were fed radioactive 73As and allowed to continue to grow for a few days. The cells were collected, lysed (broken open), and the contents of the cells were separated based on solubility; proteins and lipids  fractions were separated from the water-soluble molecules. The researchers found that 90% of the radioactive 73As was in the protein/lipid fractions. The remaining 10% was found in the water-soluble fraction containing such molecules as DNA and RNA, which are molecules that used phosphate as the backbone of their structure. The authors failed to note that many more water-soluble molecules containing phosphate would also be present in their “DNA/RNA fraction” including many of the compounds found in glycolysis, and the pentose phosphate pathway. These molecules are not expected to fractionate into the protein/lipid fractions.

Figure 4: DNA from GFAJ-1. Lane 1) DNA molecular weight ladder. Lane 2) DNA isolated from GFAJ-1 grown in arsenic-rich media. Lane 3) DNA isolated from GFAJ-1 grown in phosphate-rich media. The DNA is on top and two RNA bands are below.
Figure 5: X-ray analysis of arsenic. Top panel is from mustard plant. Bottom panel is from GFAJ-1 cells.

Next, another batch of DNA (without radiolabeled As) was further purified using gel electrophoresis (Figure 4). This is a very common technique in a molecular biologist’s lab to separate DNA based on length (I would have suggested performing a variation of a southern blot using the the supposedly radiolabeled DNA). DNA shears easily during the purification method into about 40-50,000 base pair fragments as seen in Figure 4. Agarose gel has the consistency of thick Jell-O and can be sliced with a razor blade to extract parts of the gel that contain DNA. Normally, the agarose in the gel slice would then be dissolved away and the DNA can be recovered as a pure sample. This step was bypassed and the gel slice itself was subjected to a mass spectroscopy instrument called NanoSIMS. They measured As levels to be two times higher than their control sample, a gel slice containing DNA from GFAJ-1 grown in phosphate-rich media. I don’t question whether these measurements are accurate or not because this type of instrument is very sensitive. What I do wonder is whether this experiment is concentration dependent. Would double the amount of DNA in the gels double the signal of As seen using the NanoSIMS? Unfortunately, the concentration of DNA within the gel slices was not quantified. Another possibility not ruled out is that the arsenic could just be sticking to the DNA. A recent research article found that bacteria frequently attach thiol groups to the phosphate groups in DNA. On a side note, the technique used to identify thiol groups on individual DNA nucleotides is the type of experiment that should have been done to identify arsenic labeled DNA. That would have been the most direct evidence I can think of, but I digress. Thiol groups react with arsenic compounds to form covalent bonds which is one of the mechanisms for arsenic toxicity as mentioned above. Thiol-labeled DNA plus arsenic compounds would equal arsenic-attached, thiol-labeled DNA. Thus, the phosphate backbone of DNA would still be intact. I put in a request for samples of GFAJ-1 DNA from Dr. Wolfe-Simon to perform a similar analysis on my own but I’m still waiting for a reply for my request.

The last experiment to discuss is their X-ray analysis of the arsenic within the GFAJ-1 cells using a synchrotron. Here the researchers examined whole GFAJ-1 cells (not purified DNA). The X-ray analysis lends evidence to what atoms are covalently attached to the arsenic atom. In figure 5 (bottom panel), their data suggests that the arsenic atoms in the GFAJ-1 have a coordination number of V (same as arsenate, H2As(V)O4), has a As-O bond length of  ~1.6 Ångstroms (first big peak) and the arsenic is in close proximity to a carbon atom at about ~2.4 Ångstroms (the second hump). I am providing a comparison in the top panel of other arsenic species, particularly that of dimethylarsinic acid, DMA (see Figure 1) which has a As-C bond. I did my best to align the x-axis of the two figures since they used slightly different origins. Basically, what they are showing is that the major arsenic species in the GFAJ-1 cells likely has a As(V)-O-C configuration. The researchers then compare their data to a hypothetical model of DNA with an arsenic backbone (bottom panel, thick red line). Their hypothetical model fits their experimental data nicely since arsenic in DNA would have a As(V)-O-C configuration. DNA is just but one of several possibilities as the authors point out. Their best fit model is not direct evidence of arsenic in DNA. as other hypothetical molecules containing a As(V)-O-C would have very similar model fits (e.g. glucose-6-phosphate, ATP, acetyl-CoA, NADH, or phospholipids; remember 90% of their radiolabeled 73As was in the protein/lipid fractions).

Based on the indirect evidence and untested alternative hypotheses, it is hard to support the conclusions of Wolfe-Simon et al. that As was incorporated in place of phosphate in biomolecules, particularly DNA.

Peer-reviewed responses so far

Research takes time so it will be a few more months before results from different laboratories start publishing wet lab results. From personal experience, biological experiments take more time on average than many other types of experiments. A few opinions have been published including those by Simon Silver and Le T. Phung, and more are likely to be published in March.

Figure 6. A comparison of the main geometrical data of the computed arsenate and phosphate models. The figure depicts the overlay of the optimized geometries obtained with phosphate (red) and arsenate (blue).

In one study, the geometry and electronic structure of the As-DNA backbone was examined using high-level quantum chemical calculations. Mladek et al. conclude that their

computations show that arsenate anions may behave as a perfect substitute for phosphates in the backbone of DNA, both from structural and electronic points of view. This is not surprising because it is well-known that arsenates, when available, readily substitute for phosphates in minerals.

So it is possible based on the highly similar atomic properties for arsenic to replace phosphorus (Figure 6). The authors do qualify their thermodynamic analysis that “these results, of course, make no statement about the kinetics of arsenate esters compared to those of phosphate esters,” meaning their data does not take into account how stable the arsenate compound would be relative to a phosphate compound.

Figure 7. Model compounds used to estimate the stability of phosphodiester and arsenidiester linkages in DNA.

Fekry et al. reviewed the kinetic consequences of replacing the internucleotide phosphorus atoms in DNA with arsenic. It is known that arsenate can be utilized by a number of enzymes that normal use phosphate but in each case, the arsenic analogs rapidly decompose in the presence of water. The arsenic compounds may be structurally similar to that of phosphorus compounds, but the kinetic stability is vastly different. Thermodynamically, the hydrolysis of the phosphate backbone is favored but it is extremely slow having a half-life of about 30,000,000 years (Figure 7)! DNA made with an arsenate backbone has not been synthesized yet but arsenic model systems have been examined. In these studies, arsenate analogs are much less stable with a half-life of about 0.1 seconds. That’s a big difference. The stability of DNA is paramount because it holds together an organism’s blueprints. In principle, As-DNA could exist if the DNA was shielded in some way from hydrolysis in a dehydrated state. DNA binding proteins could prevent hydrolysis and the bacterium would likely require to have extensive DNA repair mechanisms. Somehow, simultaneous protection of the DNA while DNA duplication and translation are underway would also be necessary. While some bacteria have evolved mechanisms for protecting their DNA under conditions of stress, overcoming such dramatic kinetic instability in its genetic material would be a significant feat for GFAJ-1.

Dan Tawfik and Ronald Viola reviewed the implications of replacing phosphorus with arsenic in phosphorus-containing enzymes. This is a more extensive review than cannot be discussed in detail here. They explore the potential of arsenate to be used as substrate by phosphate-utilizing enzymes which would be necessary for As to be incorporated into biolmolecules. They review the existing literature on arsenate enzymology, address the issue of how and to what degree proteins can distinguish between arsenate and phosphate, and discuss how phosphate-arsenate promiscuity may affect evolutionary transitions between phosphate- and arsenate-based biochemistry. They conclude,

The notion of life without phosphate might be proven wrong, but life with arsenate presents extreme challenges as well as intriguing research opportunities. Specifically, as discussed here, the distinction between arsenate and phosphate ions represents a challenging problem in molecular recognition. The study of the structural, functional, and evolutionary aspects of arsenate-phosphate discrimination and of the mechanisms for the discrimination of similar ions may therefore yield key insights into the possibilities of alternative life chemistries.

The story regarding GFAJ-1 is just beginning. More research is undoubtedly underway right now and will be a few more months before more results are published. I will continue to follow this story as it unfolds.

About the author: Joe Chemler has earned a Ph.D. in Chemical and Biological Engineering and is currently working in a medicinal chemistry laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan.

They explore the potential of arsenate to be used as substrate by phosphate-utilizing enzymes which would be necessary for As to be incorporated into biolmolecules. We review the existing literature on arsenate
enzymology, that intriguingly, dates back to the 1930s. We address the issue of how and to what degree
proteins can distinguish between arsenate and phosphate and what is known in general about oxyanion
specificity. We also discuss how phosphate-arsenate promiscuity may affect evolutionary transitions
between phosphate- and arsenate-based biochemistry. Finally, we highlight potential applications of arsenate
as a structural and mechanistic probe of enzymes whose catalyzed reactions involve the making or breaking of
phosphoester bonds.
The notion of life without phosphate might be proven wrong, but life with arsenate presents extreme challenges aswell as intriguing research opportunities. Specifically, as discussed here, the distinction between arsenate and phosphate ions represents a challenging problem in molecular recognition. The study of the structural, functional, and evolutionary aspects of arsenate-phosphate discrimination and of the mechanisms for the discrimination of similar ions may therefore yield key insights into the possibilities of alternative life chemistries.
%d bloggers like this: