829: Arsenic-Based Life

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Arsenic-Based Life
According to a new paper published in the journal Science, reporters are unable to thrive in an arsenic-rich environment.
Title text: According to a new paper published in the journal Science, reporters are unable to thrive in an arsenic-rich environment.


This comic is about the December 2010 announcement of the (since refuted) discovery of a strain of extremophile bacteria that incorporate arsenic instead of phosphorous into some of their biochemistry. The first three panels depict a group of scientists—including one shown with long, curly hair bound in a ponytail, identifiable from this hairstyle as Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the post-doctoral research associate who spearheaded the arsenic research (see 2421: Tower of Babel for another female scientist who is identifiable by her hairstyle)—preparing for their press conferences announcing the details of the discovery.

The trio are worried that the press conference about their discovery will be less exciting to the reporters, because the press are expecting news of life on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The researchers decide to try and make the event more exciting, but they don't know how to throw a good party. As a result, they look up advice on the internet and decide to serve cocktails and hors d'œuvres to fit the theme of the event.

The final panel shows the result, where the reporters are either dead or dying. It is implied that in order to fit the theme the researchers have laced the food and drinks with arsenic.

Arsenic is a chemical element which is known to be poisonous to humans and most other life forms. In 2010 NASA announced the discovery of bacteria GFAJ-1 (an abbreviation for "give Felisa a job") and claimed it to be able to sustain itself when starved of phosphorus, by substituting arsenic for a small percentage of its phosphorus. Most scientists did not believe this and it was disproven in 2012.[1]

The comic draws its humor by picking on both scientists and reporters. It is a common theme in xkcd to show scientists who may be extremely clever within their field, but sometimes lack common sense and are inept at social situations. Reporters are often criticized for over sensationalizing discoveries and hunting for exciting stories.


[Three people, a curly, dark-haired girl with a ponytail (identifiable from context and hairstyle as Felisa Wolfe-Simon), Megan, and Cueball, stand looking at a laptop screen, which is sitting on a desk. Dr. Wolfe-Simon is pointing at the screen. There is no speech line down to her, but from her posture it must be assumed she does the talking written above the three.]
Wolfe-Simon: Our arsenic-based DNA discovery is cool, but these reporters are expecting life on Titan! Our press conference will be such a letdown!
[Wolfe-Simon turns around to face Megan, zooming in so Cueball is not in the frame.]
Wolfe-Simon: Okay, we need to make it more exciting for them. How do you make an event entertaining?
Megan: Dunno, I suck at parties. Music, I guess?
[Wolfe-Simon turns back around and leans over to start typing on the computer, while the other two look on. Megan puts her hand to her chin.]
Wolfe-Simon: WikiHow says you can "serve cocktails and hors d'œrves that fit the theme of your event."
Megan: Easy enough!
[Wolfe-Simon stands on a podium behind a lectern ready to deliver the news, while Cueball stands amongst the audience, holding a tray with three drinks glasses. A fourth glass lies at foot of the lectern on the podium. Two Cueball-like guys in the audience are lying on the floor, one of them having fallen backwards in his chair, while a third Cueball-like guy is still standing but has his hands up to his throat as he is suffocating. Finally, Ponytail is slumped over in her seat with her head on her chest. One empty chair is still standing.]


  • The words "hors d'oerves" at the comic are just a misspelling by Randall for "hors d'oeuvres" (in French "hors d'œuvre" both singular and plural). The English pronunciation of these words is awr-DURVZ /ɔrˈdɜrvz/, with the R before the V, not after, which explains the mistake.[2] As opposed to the original French pronunciation, where the v and r keep the same order.[3]
  • The advice "Serve cocktails, hors d'œuvres, and snacks that fit the theme of your event" is an actual step on wikiHow article "How to Make an Event Entertaining".[4]


  1. Tobias J. Erb; Patrick Kiefer; Bodo Hattendorf; Detlef Gunter; Julia Vorholt (July 8, 2012). "GFAJ-1 Is an Arsenate-Resistant, Phosphate-Dependent Organism". Science 337 (6093): 467–70. doi:10.1126/science.1218455. PMID 22773139. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  2. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hors+d%27oeuvre
  3. http://fr.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/%C5%93uvre
  4. https://www.wikihow.com/Make-an-Event-Entertaining

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What a waste of good poison, the food at conferences usually does that on it's own anyways. Davidy22[talk] 13:27, 8 January 2013 (UTC)

Maybe it is to be noted that in the comic, "serve cocktails and hors d'oerves" should have been written "serve cocktails and hors d'œuvres"? 15:14, 24 October 2013 (UTC)

I do not talk French but my dictionary tells me that "d'œuvre" (without the trailing s) is correct. Thanks for your hint, explanation is updated.--Dgbrt (talk) 19:41, 24 October 2013 (UTC)
"Hors d'oeuvres" is English; "hors d'œuvre" (with a ligature and without the trailing s) is French. 12:53, 29 January 2014 (UTC)
I am dumbfounded at the pronounciation part of the explanation. Do you really pronounce it with the "r" sound before the "v" sound? Why would you do that? 15:24, 27 December 2014 (UTC)
Basing my pronunciation on what I heard in the TV series Bewitched, I get something like /ɔːˈdɜːv/. In a rhotic accent, this would be /ɔ:ɹˈdɜːɹv/. RyanofTinellb (talk) 01:18, 30 December 2014 (UTC)
None the less angicised it is pronounced ordurves. Arsenic is a pick-me-up in low doses and widely used at one time to show off horses, especially at sales. Many people died through its abuse in the good old days. Many creatures exist on poisonous habitats. On one Nat Geo show they had bison in Yellowstone eating arsenic rich vegetation in winter.
Here's the wikiHow article: https://www.wikihow.com/Make-an-Event-Entertaining Agusbou2015 (talk) 20:25, 8 February 2023 (UTC)

I have heard there is a grass in Amlwch's old copper quarry that can grow in copper rich soil that kills everything else.

Not sure how true any of that is but plenty of creatures live in extreme heat and pressure environments.

I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 21:33, 24 January 2015 (UTC)