Life As We Don't Know It: NASA Finds Arsenic-Eating Bacteria

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The portion of Mono Lake where NASA scientists conducted their research. [Photo: NASA]

We knew that NASA's news conference today about implications for finding extraterrestrial life would be big, but at least some of us hoped it’d have to do with life on other planets. Instead, NASA announced that a team of astrobiologists have found a type of microorganism in Mono Lake, California, USA, Earth that can use the usually poisonous element arsenic to reproduce and grow. Indeed, this little bacteria build parts of itself by replacing phosphorus with arsenic in its cells and DNA.

Up until now, scientists had only theorized that life with an alternative biochemistry could exist: That is, life that uses elements beyond hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur to reproduce and live. This arsenic-eating bacteria, called GFAJ-1, expands our definition of what life can thrive off of, and encourages scientists to look for life that can use other elements beyond our favorite six. Expect that new editions of biology textbooks will reflect this change, and that the search for life here on Earth--and on other planets--will expand to look for life with other alternative biochemistries.

If you’re going out to Mono Lake in hopes of grabbing some GFAJ-1 to cook up for dinner, be warned: Arsenic is used as a pesticide, and is rather toxic. Stick to serving things in from the Animalia, Plantae, or Fungi taxonomic kingdoms and avoid bacteria that can build itself from toxic elements and you should be set.

What are your thoughts on this announcement? Let us know in the comments.


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