Felisa Wolfe-Simon GFAJ-1 Microbe
The ‘Give Me a Job’ Microbe
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 microbiology.
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.
—Paul Davies is director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University.
Write to Paul Davies at firstname.lastname@example.org