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Inspired perhaps by the Star Trekian line “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”, NASA-funded researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon must have known the hype she’d create when she announced the discovery of a new form of life.

Scooped out of California’s arsenic-rich Mono Lake, the bacterium in question was said to have achieved the impossible. According to Wolfe-Simon, GFAJ-1 to give it its proper name seemed to have swapped phosphorus – one of the six essential elements for life – for, of all things, arsenic. Imagine what this scattering of the basic buildings blocks of life could mean… the opportunities it would open up for other planets, with environments previously considered too inhospitable, to support life. US journal Science certainly saw the potential, as did many scientists. But not all.

Sharing Canadian microbiologist Rosemary Redfield’s cynicism, Tobias Erb and his colleagues at Zurich’s Institute of Microbiology conducted their own experiments and found that, though adaptable, arsenic-loving GFAJ-1 did still in fact require phosphorus to survive.

Publishing these later findings, Science made the observation that each and every one in this series dedicated to scientific incompetence and ineptitude has demonstrated: “the scientific process is a naturally self-correcting one”.

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