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Scientists Create Methane-Based Life: Science Reporting Stoops to a New Low

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Yesterday a friend sent me a link to a news article with the exciting headline:

“No water needed: Methane-based life possible on Saturn’s moon Titan, study says.”

Quite remarkable! Amazing enough to immediately attract my friend’s attention and to get him to shoot an email to me with the link, as he knows I am interested in the field.

Yet, if the headline weren’t exciting enough, the first sentence of the news article really amps up the message:

Researchers from the Cornell University have developed a methane-based, oxygen-free life form that theoretically may exist in the cold and harsh environment of the planet Saturn’s giant moon Titan, defying the idea that water is necessary for life.

This is truly an astonishing feat! Researchers have finally developed a new “life form.” And a methane-based one at that.

Now at this point, a few red flags should have been raised in the mind of anyone who is passingly familiar with origin of life research. Indeed, there should be a whole field of red flags waving and snapping smartly in the wind like the Hammer and Sickle on a frigid Moscow (or Titan) morning.

Our pulse racing at the news, we scarcely get to the next paragraph before the letdown.

Scientists modeled the cell membrane of small organic nitrogen compounds, and it can function in extremely cold liquid methane temperatures . . .

Oh, wait. You mean they didn’t actually develop a new life form?

No. They modeled. As in, a computer simulation. As in, not in the lab. As in, not real.

But still, generating a realistic model of a “new life form” on the computer is pretty impressive, right?

Yes, it would be. But notice they didn’t simulate a new life form. Just a “cell membrane.”

“Rats,” we mutter, as our hope sinks . . .

But wait! It is still pretty impressive to model a whole new type of cell membrane, with a methane-based fluid, rather than good ol’ H2O. After all, a cell membrane is a remarkably complex structure, with pores and pathways and regulatory elements to control flow in and out of the cell.

Unfortunately, our disappointment has not yet ended. What one sentence giveth, the next taketh away:

The cell is made of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen molecules: they exist in the Titan seas, but simultaneously demonstrate flexibility and stability of the liposome on Earth . . .

Hold on a minute. What is that word “liposome” doing in there? A liposome as you, dear reader, are no doubt aware, is typically defined along the following lines: “a microscopic artificial sac composed of fatty substances and used in experimental research of the cell.” An “artificial sac” . . . used in research? Yes. Otherwise known as a “spherule.” As long as we’re at it, let’s bring it down to common parlance: it is a “bubble.”

A liposome, as you know, is typically made up of 2 or 3 molecules that attract and/or repel each other in the presence of a specific liquid, such that an initial sheet of bonded molecules is formed, which eventually folds over on itself to create a bubble or sphere in the liquid. (A soap bubble forming in water is an example of a similar process, though of course less stable than the liposomes studied in origin of life research.)

Forming a liposome in water is old hat. But doing so in the presence of methane is something of a novelty – thus the cited research and the press story. Good research, to be sure, and worthy of a news report.

Yet a “cell membrane,” it is most certainly not. Not even close.

Whence the Interest?

The reason liposomes are interesting in origin of life research is not because they are actually close to being a cell membrane, or because they actually carry out the more complex functions of a cell membrane, or because they could realistically lead to the formation of a cell membrane, but for two reasons:

First, if you look at a liposome, cock your head to the side just right, stick out your tongue, squint, and don’t ask too many hard questions – if you do all that, then a liposome appears to be kind of, sort of, a little bit like a cell membrane.

Second, one of the (many) sticky issues for a naturalistic origin of life scenario is the problem of interfering cross reactions. It is such a problem that it effectively prevents any nascent information-rich molecule (say, the proto-RNA or proto-DNA) from properly forming in the first place, and certainly from staying properly formed for any length of time. Thus, some kind of isolated location – a chamber, a vessel, a mud globule, a liposome – is required to isolate the precious, soon-to-be-living chemical constituents. Thus researchers have turned to liposomes as a potential answer, because, hey, in theory some nucleotides or amino acids or other molecules could get caught in some kind of a microscopic bubble where they are protected from the outside environment. In such a protective shell, those molecules would interact with each other, and it is imagined they might form . . . oh, maybe, a larger molecule . . . which in turn might form, say, some even larger molecule . . . which in turn would either be inert and do nothing or would itself likely cause interfering cross reactions, leading to a useless sludge . . . which in turn . . . oh, forget it.

But the point is that a liposome is extremely useful to at least get the storyline off the ground, if not life itself.

So researchers continue with their liposomes and imagine as they gaze lovingly at their creations that they are dealing with some kind of early cell membrane. Or when they are really trying to score some points, that they have created an early “proto-cell” or some such hypothetical entity. Yet in hushed whispers among colleagues, or when pressed by someone knowledgeable, or when they have let their guard down after a few drinks at the pub, they will acknowledge that they have not created a cell. Nor a cell membrane. Nor anything like unto it.

The Disconnect

As is too often the case, the headlines and opening paragraphs of the news reports bear little resemblance to the actual research. If one knows something about the area of research and knows how to read between the lines, one can sometimes tease out what the researchers actually did from the news report, as is the case here. But the poor unsuspecting public is left with the impression that researchers have developed a new methane-based life form.

In fairness, the researchers never claimed to have done any such thing. Their original press release is more sanguine about the results, although it does include some overly-optimistic language and even a few zingers. For example, explaining why they were able to produce results that others had not, one researcher noted:

We didn’t come in with any preconceptions about what should be in a membrane and what shouldn’t.

Now before you laugh at that quote, I am confident the researcher was simply referring to the fact that they looked at the problem from a new perspective, rather than with the blinders occasionally worn by veterans in a specialized field, and that this was an advantage in this particular case. Fair enough. But I can’t help notice the irony in the quote. Yes, intrepid researcher, it seems that you indeed came in with no idea what would be required for a real cell membrane. Makes it so much easier that way to achieve impressive appearing results . . .

One can of course argue that researchers are completely divorced from the headlines that accompany their work. “I just do great research and write solid papers,” they might object. “What the news outlets do with it from there is nothing I can control.”

Sure. But you could, one might think, reign in your own university press department to be a bit more clear about the results. And it would be quite easy to contact a science writer to correct the record. No, not every time, of course; that is not realistic. But it would be nice to see it happen occasionally, particularly with egregious misrepresentations of your work.

On the other hand, dear reader, would you take the time to correct a highly flattering news story if you were in their shoes. C’mon. Would you rather have a headline that says “Researcher Develops New Methane-Based Life Form,” or “Researcher Creates Bubbles in Methane”? It isn’t even a contest.

The Upshot

What seems to have happened here is the all-too-typical series of steps:

1. Researchers carry out some interesting and valuable work.

2. Researchers publish a paper that accurately reports their work, but which also throws in a few inevitably tantalizing “possibles” and “what-if’s” about the greater implications of their work – some perhaps justified, others perhaps built upon the all-too-human desire for recognition and the need for future funding.

3. University press department gets ahold of the paper and writes up a congratulatory and highly flattering press release. The press release exaggerates the research just slightly and throws in a few speculative quotes that go beyond the actual results, but not so much so that the researchers feel they need to battle their own press department to correct the record.

4. Science writer at a news organization sees the university press release and writes a news story. If they are knowledgable and professional, they might fudge just a bit to get a catchy headline and attract eyeballs, making sure, of course, to set the record straight deeper into the actual story. If they are clueless as to the research or less professional, then all bets are off, as seems to have been the case here.

And so, in the course of just a few steps, the research can progress from: (i) running a computer simulation, to (ii) actually making liposomes of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen in methane, to (iii) creating a “cell membrane,” to (iv) developing a new methane-based life form.

It’s all very easy, really. A new life form in just four easy steps!

All you have to do is play a little loose with the facts, avoid asking the hard questions, and use a healthy dose of imagination.

Kind of like the theory of abiogenesis itself.

20 Replies to “Scientists Create Methane-Based Life: Science Reporting Stoops to a New Low

  1. 1
    CHartsil says:

    So your argument is that the media took liberty with an article on science?

    That doesn’t affect science. Just like when the ‘alien life’ was found at Mono lake. The scientific community stayed hard nosed while the news had a field day. Turns out, it was contamination.

  2. 2

    Eric,

    The sequence of unveiling the real content of the article which you used at the beginning of your blog brought to my mind this joke that circulated in my native communist eastern block country:

    Radio Erevan announces: We learned that comrade Ivan Invanovici won the lottery: he got a brand new Volga limousine.

    Radio Erevan announces later: Dear listeners we come with a correction: it is true that comrade Ivan Ivanovici won the lottery but he won a motorcycle Kamciatka not a Volga limousine.

    Radio Erevan announces later: Dear listeners we come with a correction: we just learned that comrade Ivan Ivanovici won the
    lottery but he won a bicycle Zorki not a motorcycle Kamciatka.

    Radio Erevan announces later: Dear listeners we come with a correction: we just learned that comrade Ivan Ivanovici bicycle Kamciatka was stolen and not that he won it at the lottery.

  3. 3
    Timaeus says:

    CHartsil:

    You are not seeing the bigger picture: why do the news media *so often* exaggerate the findings of scientists? You might say: because the news media like more sensational stories. But if all they want is sensational stories, then *any* exaggeration would do — exaggerations that are potentially pro-religion as well as exaggerations that are potentially anti-religion. For example, a journalist might write a story with a title like: “ID Scientist Proves that God Must Have Created Cells”; or “Mathematician Shows that Darwinian Evolution Would Need More Time than the Age of the Universe to Work.” Now those would be shocking headlines, capable of selling boatloads of papers. But we don’t see them. Instead, we see headlines exaggerating claims for the blind, unguided chemical origin of life, etc.

    What does this tell us? That the science journalists have a bias. They are willing to greatly exaggerate scientific research if they think it gets us closer to proving that everything got here by “Molecules to Man” without any intelligent planning or guidance. But evidence that seems to show that some sort of intelligence lies behind the structures of life, they ignore. The only time they even cover stories like that where they can ridicule the claims by trying to link them with fundamentalism.

    Note that the journalist discussed above will get at most a light rap on the knuckles, because, while he mangled the science, he is on the right team. If the journalist had written up the same events with an ID slant to them, he would have been excoriated on every blog site in Darwindom, lashed out against in the New York Times, etc. The double standard is so obvious it’s painful.

  4. 4
    Eric Anderson says:

    CHartsil:

    In addition to Timaeus’ excellent points, I would add the following:

    Yes, the media is responsible for poor news coverage. However, it is not as though the media are out there operating as rogue agents, battling against the researchers’ cautious and measured tones. It is not as though the researchers are begging — nay, even making any reasonable effort — to make sure that their work isn’t blown out of proportion.

    It starts right with the researchers, who often have an overblown view of the importance and relevance of their work, particularly if they have not carefully thought through what is really required for a complex, functional information-based, living structure like a so-called “simple” cell. The doctrine of molecules-to-man blinds so many researchers into thinking that they are on the right track and are on the cusp of some profound discovery, when in fact they are floundering about on a sea of false ideas. (Note: I am not saying the researchers in this case failed to do interesting work. Their work is interesting. And it deserves to be reported. But it should not be taken for more than it is, either by the media or the researchers themselves.)

    Then we turn to the university press departments. As I mentioned, press departments, though quite close to the researchers and in a position to be more careful, still tend to exaggerate just a bit to amp up the importance of the work of their scientists. For example, in this case, the official Cornell press release (http://www.news.cornell.edu/st.....moon-titan) is titled: “Life ‘not as we know it’ possible on Saturn’s moon Titan”.

    Perhaps not a terrible headline, but is methane-based life really “possible” on Saturn? Sure. If by “possible” we simply mean that anything goes. If we simply mean “Who knows? Maybe it is possible.” But that is not the context of a press release relating to a published scientific paper. By “possible” in this context, they mean something a bit stronger. Or certainly hope that the reader will take away something stronger. A minor indiscretion, to be sure. But at this early stage we start to see the development of a slight spin that goes beyond the actual research.

    There are also a few other small statements here and there in the press release that bear scrutiny. For example, it says that the Cornell researchers “offer a template for life that could thrive in a harsh, cold world . . .” Again, we might argue that such a statement is not wildly inappropriate, but just a bit off the mark, a bit too optimistic, a bit beyond what the researchers actually did. After all, they did not offer a “template for life”. The didn’t even offer a template for a cell membrane. Instead, they offered a simulation of the formation of a liposome in the presence of liquid methane.

    The press release goes on to say “. . . Titan could harbor methane-based, oxygen-free cells that metabolize, reproduce and do everything life on Earth does.”

    Again, sure it “could”. But based on what? Certainly not on the researchers’ work; but a lay reader might get such an impression.

    So we’ve already had three speculative statements. One might argue that none of them are egregious. They all use words like “possible” and “could”. But together they begin creating a narrative that, at best goes beyond the actual research, and at worst paints the research as having solved or nearly-solved much broader issues than it in fact addressed.

    And that is just the headline and the first two paragraphs.

    So, again, we can point to the ultimate media story — in this case clearly written by someone with no background in the topic at hand — and say it is all the media’s fault. There is no shortage of blame there, and you will not find me defending the media coverage (look at the title of my OP).

    However, and this is a significant “however,” it is rampant that researchers feed into this hype: through their own statements, through their university press departments, by turning a blind eye to the over-hyped media stories, by not making at least a passing effort to bring the stories down to earth.

    Other than a few obvious exceptions, the media typically don’t just make up their stories out of whole cloth. Instead, they are often led down that path inadvertently by intemperate language and reports from the researchers and universities themselves. A cynic might even be tempted to think that in some cases the media are being deliberately led to believe something a bit beyond the actual research.

    Well, that is much too long. Yes, I do blame the media primarily for these kinds of stories. The science writers should be more knowledgeable in the field, and should be more careful to check the facts, and should be less interested in attracting eyeballs. Yes, the buck stops primarily with the media. But let’s not be naive enough to think that it starts there.

    —–

    One last time so that no-one misunderstands: I am not denigrating the liposome simulation work itself. It is interesting work. It deserves to be reported.

    I am simply calling for more rationality, more restraint, more care in the claimed implications of the research: from the researchers themselves, to the press departments, to the media.

  5. 5
    rvb8 says:

    If you go to sciencedaily they cover the story efficiently and economically, avoiding all the nonsense of the media, Eric Anderson’s friend, and Eric Anderson.

    It is Nitrogen based life, in a sea of Methane. Nitrogen because this could withstand the severe cold, methane because that’s what nature has provided as a medium for the interaction of chemicals.

    So, scoffs and laughter from the ID community as science moves forward; there’s a shock.

  6. 6
    kairosfocus says:

    EA, is this an example of Attkisson’s astro-turfing and pseudo-consensus. Here, backed by the tax dollars pumped in to support Science and education on pain of objections or questions being deemed a “war on science”? KF

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    RVB8: Rule of thumb no 1 on computer sims, thought exercises [apart from direct logical implications], management scenario analysis or pol-mil war games and the like: simulation is not reality . . . and must be validated against reality. Only actual empirical reality is scientific reality. Ideas, to be genuinely scientifically progressive, should be constrained by empirical observations and tests. Otherwise a reality gap and maybe a group-think can emerge and substitute for reality. KF

  8. 8
    rvb8 says:

    Quite correct KF. But they came up with a hypothesis based on the known attributes of Titan and suggested a possible answer for non-carbon based life.

    The supposed lifeforms are called, AZOTOSMEs, from Azote (Nitrogen) and Soma (body). They have suggested these can tested for by visiting the methane oceans on Titan, which for purely exploration reasons, sounds possible.

    Again! What has ID produced lately?

  9. 9
    Andre says:

    RVB

    Where have you been?

    You do know one of the hallmarks of engineering and design is the ability to reverse engineer that design……..

    http://biomimicry.net/

    What is ID producing? Much more than your narrow view is willing to accept……

    P.S….. Bad design does not mean it’s not designed….. look at the Rabants of old or those awful Ford Sierra’s you guys in NZ loved so much…..

  10. 10
    rvb8 says:

    We like Ford Sierra’s? What are they? We actually mainly buy Japanese:)

  11. 11
    Andre says:

    Seriously…. Don’t know a Sierra? You must be 15 years old then!

    http://www.autotrader.co.nz/us.....rra/292616

  12. 12
    kairosfocus says:

    RVB8 (attn AS): Computer sim models are not chemical reality and chem in the lab is not chem in reasonable pre-life contexts. In addition, the OP is about the highly significant gap between headlines and what was actually done. Finally, if you have an understanding of the long history of grossly exaggerated findings and unmet promissory notes on both OOL studies and evolutionary theorising, you would be reserved or cautious in looking at the latest announcements. KF

  13. 13
    Joe says:

    Non-carbon based life? Science has already demonstrated that is not going to happen.

    And if science moves forward then why is it still stuck on evolutionism?

  14. 14
    Joe says:

    Aurelio Smith- Seeing that evolutionism doesn’t have a mechanism capable of getting beyond populations of prokaryotes, GIVEN starting populations of prokaryotes, it obviously cannot explain the diversity of life.

  15. 15
    wd400 says:

    If you are interested in bad/misleading/over-hyped science news (which this indeed seems to be) then I suggest you follow the “News” account of this site.

  16. 16
    Eric Anderson says:

    Rvb8:

    Why do you refer to “life” and “lifeforms”?

    Perhaps you need to re-read the OP before you comment. They did not produce life. Or anything even close to it. Nor did they simulate life. They ran simulations that showed liposomes can form in liquid methane.

  17. 17
    Eric Anderson says:

    wd400 @16:

    Agreed. “News” regularly posts examples of bad/misleading/over-hyped science news stories.

  18. 18
    Eric Anderson says:

    kairosfocus, thanks for the comments, as well as for the link to the astro-turfing video here and on your other thread. Interesting to consider.

  19. 19
    wd400 says:

    Agreed. “News” regularly posts examples of bad/misleading/over-hyped science news stories.

    If only she knew that’s what she was doing…

  20. 20
    kairosfocus says:

    AS, FYI, the core design inference contention is easily and readily testable and tested. On trillions of cases in point, functionally specific complex interactive organisation and associated information, FSCO/I, is produced by intelligently directed configuration, aka design. To overturn this, which is an induction on abundant cases backed up by the implications of needle in haystack blind search analysis of config spaces of 10^150 – 10^301 and beyond [500 – 1,000 bits], simply show the blind chance and necessity origin of such FSCO/I. Something that is a hotly contested and denied truth of experience may not be spectacular or headline grabbing, but it is well within the remit of science to seek the empirically anchored truth about our world. And BTW, if you wish a headline, how about: Oopsie — AS provides an example of how FSCO/I arises by design in hopes of dismissing that inference. KF

    PS: UD’s audience statistics, I am told per a recent note by News here at UD, are such that there is now a question of increased server capacity.

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