[OPE] The 'Give Me a Job' Microbe

From: Jurriaan Bendien <jurriaanbendien@online.nl>
Date: Sat Dec 04 2010 - 07:52:15 EST

The 'Give Me a Job' Microbe

A young researcher risked it all to chase an arsenic-guzzling bug

The announcement by NASA this past Thursday of the discovery of an amazing
arsenic-guzzling bacterium has made the bug's discoverer, Felisa
Wolfe-Simon, into an overnight celebrity. What few people know, however, is
the story behind the initials for her GFAJ-1 microbe, the first known
organism to depart from the usual chemical formula for life. GFAJ stands for
"Give Felisa a Job."

I first met Felisa four years ago when I moved to Arizona State University
to set up a new research center on foundational questions in science. I was
trawling for talented "big thinkers" who were interested in the origin of
life. Felisa was a young post-doctoral research assistant working with the
distinguished astrobiologist Ariel Anbar. I was immediately impressed by her
bubbly personality, adventurous mind and broad knowledge. She had begun her
career as a musician (she is an Oberlin-trained oboist), then studied
oceanography, came to ASU as a chemist and moved on to research in

About that time I was planning a workshop on a provocative theme: How can we
be sure that all life on Earth is the same life? Is it possible that
seriously weird organisms are lurking under our noses, hiding in plain
sight, masquerading as common microbes? At the workshop, Felisa came up with
the most incisive suggestion: Maybe there is a life form that uses arsenic
instead of phosphorus (they are chemically similar) in its organic
structure. The participants were intrigued but not convinced.

Felisa was still in her 20s and had a career to build. Her temporary
position was coming to an end, and competition for jobs in cutting-edge
scientific research is intense. Most young scientists play it safe and focus
on a mainstream topic. But Felisa is a free spirit with a healthy contempt
for scientific and professional hierarchies, and she had faith in her hunch.
She dyed her long hair a defiant bright pink and refused to be browbeaten.
It was a career gamble that very few young scientists would have the courage
to make.

I fell into a role as Felisa's unofficial mentor and encouraged her to stick
to her guns. In this, I had the advantage of being unencumbered by
knowledge. I dropped chemistry at the age of 16, and all I knew about
arsenic came from Agatha Christie novels. But who was going to fund the
search for arsenic life? We applied to a philanthropic organization but got
rejected. "Too speculative," we were told. Then NASA came to the rescue.
They were prepared to give it a try, so after a brief spell at Harvard,
Felisa took yet another insecure position, at the U.S. Geological Survey in
California, where she began working with Ron Oremland. Together they began
trawling Mono Lake, near Yosemite National Park, in search of evidence.

Meanwhile, Felisa, Ariel Anbar and I set out the case for arsenic life in a
short paper, which we struggled to get published. Typical of the response
was the wry comment of a prominent British astrobiologist after I presented
our case at a Royal Society meeting in London last January: "You'd be off
your trolley to go searching for arsenic-based life."

By then Felisa already had in her laboratory the bacteria that were to make
her famous. It took months of painstaking work to assemble a convincing case
that GFAJ really had incorporated arsenic into its vital innards. At every
step, the experimental results might have shot down her big idea, spelling
the probable end of a promising scientific career. But when I went to see
GFAJ for myself last April, Felisa's eyes were aglow with excitement-it was
all coming together far better than she had dared to hope.

Now that she is in the glare of world attention, I have little doubt that
someone will indeed "Give Felisa a Job."

-Paul Davies is director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in
Science at Arizona State University.
Write to Paul Davies at paul.davies@wsj.com


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Received on Sat Dec 4 21:30:40 2010

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