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NASA announces discovery of radical new life form - on Earth

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December 2, 2010

The GFAJ-1 bacteria, grown on arsenic

The GFAJ-1 bacteria, grown on arsenic

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In a press conference held today, scientists working with NASA announced the discovery of a new microorganism right here on Earth that employs a survival strategy never seen before in any other life form. Found in Northern California’s highly-saline Mono Lake, the GFAJ-1 bacteria exists in an environment that has very little phosphorous, an element that had previously been considered essential for all living things in order to build DNA. To cope with this problem, the bacteria is able to substitute highly-toxic arsenic for phosphorous, in its cell components. The fact that a microbe is able to survive in such a fashion opens up the possibilities for where life could exist on other planets, and will require a rethink on NASA’s part regarding its search for extraterrestrial life forms.

Until this announcement, it had been assumed that carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur were required for any terrestrial organism to grow. Phosphorous is considered to be an essential part of the backbone of DNA and RNA. Arsenic, on the other hand, is highly poisonous to most life forms – it is, however, chemically-similar to phosphorous.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey, led a team that first discovered GFAJ-1 in the salty, alkaline mud of Mono Lake. Mud from the lake was taken back to her lab, and placed in a medium that (like the lake) had very little phosphorous, but lots of arsenic. The bacteria was observed growing in the mud, despite everything. When analyzed, the GFAJ-1 were found to be using the arsenic as phosphorous.

“What I’ve presented to you today is a microbe, doing something different than life as we knew it,” said Wolfe-Simon. “We’ve cracked open the door to what’s possible for life elsewhere in the universe, and that’s profound.”

“I find this result delightful, because it makes me have to expand my notion of what environmental constituents might enable habitability,” added Pamela Conrad, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We still don’t know everything there is to know about what might make a habitable environment on another planet.”

The research was published today in the journal Science.

All images courtesy NASA.

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About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth
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8 Comments

Why is this being touted as a NEW discovery???? It\'s been known for YEARS Here are some examples:

http://www.post-gazette.com/healthscience/20030519arsenic0519p2.asp

http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/sep2008/2008-09-08-01.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC492386/

And there\'s MUCH more.....

PG

I believe it is more about the DNA portion rather than the eating of arsenic part.

Shawn Sieben

Were people under the assumption that DNA is the only means of creating self replicating life? Are other structures not possible?

Dave Myers

I can\'t believe until now that such bacteria can live in the water that has arsenic substance from it. According to the news, A discovery by NASA of extraterrestrial existence able to survive in arsenic was leaked Thursday. National Aeronautics and Space Administration failed to suppress the data prior to a press conference announcing the discovery. It was at a California lake, not in space, where NASA scientists found a life form unlike any previously known. NASA might stay open without personal loans if this proves to be true.

Facebook User

Arsenic is directly under Phosphorous on the periodic table! Is it such a leap of faith to assume over time and several generations that bacteria have adopted, requiring less and less phosphorous substituting chemically similar Arsenic in its place! I wouldn\'t exactly call this a new life form! Arthur Welser Cornell Ag \"74\"

Welsarth

The best part is the name for the microbe, GFAJ-1: \"Give Felisa A Job -1\" - it\'s in the Wall St Jl, among others. Yes, she got a job, too.

pomaikai

"We still don't know everything there is to know about what might make a habitable environment on another planet

Well Pamela that\'s very humble of you to admit it, but I think we knew that already!!

Davedorset

paulgo, you\'re missing the point entirely. What you gave are all examples of things living in arsenic, not using arsenic in place of one of the basic building blocks of life.

Arthur, of course it\'s \"such a leap.\" In the millions of life forms on this planet we\'ve discovered, we\'ve never seen one... not ONE that can do this. Of course it\'s a new life form. I\'m not sure what your point is about it being right below phosphorus on the table of the elements. Phosphorus is right below nitrogen. What\'s your point? Bismuth is along that same line as well, but I don\'t think you\'d want arsenic in your Pepto Bismol.

Dave Andrews
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