Is it ET or Alf? NASA will tell us the next day

Below is the full news release from NASA that kick started a wave of Internet speculation about aliens.  Here are some sample Internet headlines from page 1 of a Yahoo search:

  • Extraterrestrial life:  NASA Press Conference Ignites ET Rumors
  • Tomorrow’s NASA Press Conference:  Aliens Exist!
  • Are the Aliens Coming?  NASA to Hold Press Conference

It seems it is time for FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder to come out of retire.  (Search the X-Files or Fox Mulder if you do not get that reference).   Dec. 2, 2010 maybe the day we learn they are hear or out there or not.  Read the news release for yourself.

Full Text of NASA News Release

Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington                               
Cathy Weselby
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Nov. 29, 2010


NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery; Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 p.m. EST On Dec. 2

WASHINGTON — NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website at

Participants are:
–     Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
–     Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
–     Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
–     Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
–     James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe

Media representatives may attend the conference or ask questions by phone or from participating NASA locations. To obtain dial-in information, journalists must send their name, affiliation and telephone number to Steve Cole at or call 202-358-0918 by noon Dec. 2.

For NASA TV streaming video and downlink information, visit:

For more information about NASA astrobiology activities, visit:

Here is a sample of a tradition news story about the NASA announcement:

(Washington, DC) — NASA is scheduled to hold a news conference at 2 p.m., Eastern time, today to discuss an astrobiology finding that it says will impact the search for extraterrestrial life. reports that’s all that’s been needed to set off a flurry of Internet rumors that extraterrestrial life has actually been discovered.

One rumor is that microbial life has been found on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

The press conference will focus on an embargoed study being published at 2 p.m. in the journal “Science.” Some science journalists, who received an advanced look at papers under the agreement not to reveal the findings until they’re published, have thrown a damper on the speculation.

Part of the mystery is the embargo for the story.  An embargo is no unusual but does fuel speculation.  The core of the excitement is the term astrobiology.  Never had a class in that?  Here is how NASA defines it:

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.

NASA’s Astrobiology Program addresses three fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life beyond Earth and, if so, how can we detect it? What is the future of life on Earth and in the universe? In striving to answer these questions and improve understanding of biological, planetary, and cosmic phenomena and relationships among them, experts in astronomy and astrophysics, Earth and planetary sciences, microbiology and evolutionary biology, cosmochemistry, and other relevant disciplines are participating in astrobiology research and helping to advance the enterprise of space exploration.”

At a time when a shuttle has been delayed over a month and there are only two launches remain with future funding in doubt, this is creating excitement and attention for NASA.  

Question to Consider

  1.  What makes the news release “effective” publicity?
  2. Do you have any ethical concerns about how NASA handled the situation?  Why or why not?
  3. How is the Internet acting to amplify a simple news release and build a bigger story?
  4. What is the rationale for using an embargo in a news release and the value to the person or organization issuing the news releases?
  5. What lessons can other organization learn about media (online and traditional) from this case?
  6. What public relations dangers does the anticipation create for NASA?

Here was the announcement:

NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

Image of Mono Lake Research area Image of Mono Lake Research area
Click photo for larger image.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic.
Click photo for larger image.

GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic Image of GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic.
Click photo for larger image.

GFAJ-1 grown on phosphorus Image of GFAJ-1 grown on phosphorus.
Click photo for larger image.

NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

“The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.”

This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth. The research is published in this week’s edition of Science Express.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

“We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team’s lead scientist. “If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”

The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.


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