NEW YORK — It was a provocative finding: strange bacteria in a California lake that thrived on something completely unexpected — arsenic. What it suggested is that life, a very different kind of life, could possibly exist on some other planet.
The research, published by a leading scientific journal in 2010, led to overheated speculation about how life might exist elsewhere — and some dissent about the initial finding.
Sunday, that same journal, Science, released two papers that rip apart the original research. They ‘‘clearly show’’ that the bacteria cannot use arsenic as researchers claimed, said an accompanying statement from the journal.
The saga began when scientists led by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute published a paper that said the bacteria, at Mono Lake in California, could grow by substituting arsenic for phosphorus. The researchers had looked at Mono Lake because of its high arsenic levels, and they reported their conclusions from lab experiments.
Their paper raised eyebrows because phosphorus was considered essential to life, while arsenic, while chemically similar, is a poison.
If the bacteria can break the rules like this, some said, who knows what kinds of life may be possible beyond Earth?
As the Science statement summarizes the results, the new work shows the bacterial species ‘‘does not break the long-held rules of life, contrary to how Wolfe-Simon had interpreted her group’s data.’’