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.