…hold the Old Lace. I think journalists call this “Breaking News.”
Early this morning, rumors circulated that NASA would be announcing the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Hell, I’ll admit, I myself was caught up in the hysteria; between the 8:07 rumor and the 8:40 debunking, I went out and bought four hundred cases of Spaghetti-O’s, a thousand liters of Evian, about 5,000 rounds of thirty-ought-six ammo and a T-shirt that says “Give Us Your Wisdom…OR ELSE.”
But that was probably unnecessary. We’re not being invaded…YET. NASA-funded research has “merely” discovered some weird-ass completely new forms of life in California’s Mono Lake — and no, they’re not referring to the clientele at nearby Grumpy’s Sports Restaurant. Those guys are essentially carbon-based, when it comes right down to it.
No, what the team discovered is a microbe that uses arsenic in its cells in the place that most of us use phosophorous. That’s a big deal because it’s never been seen before — and arsenic, which is toxic to most of us, is not considered one of the building blocks of life. It’s actually pretty rarely seen in microbes; though some previously known microbes do spew arsenic, they don’t use it as a central building block.
NASA’s story goes a little something like this:
“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.
…The team chose to explore Mono Lake because of its unusual chemistry, especially its high salinity, high alkalinity, and high levels of arsenic.
…and $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon Tuesdays. The rest of the NASA story is at NASA.gov, there’s still more at astrobiology.nasa.gov, and that Science reference is here; it’s only previewed in Science Express. The AAAS, which publishes Science, has a news story about it here, but you’ll have to be a fully-subscribed pocket protector commando (ie, a subscriber to Science) to read the whole thing. It’s okay; you’ll have the next hundred years to catch up on the research in the biology textbooks, as they’ve just been, as they say, completely rewritten.
Does it matter that NASA sort of misled people into thinking that they were about to announce alien life? The blog over at Discover Magazine thinks so; they call bullshit on the hype machine. Plenty of others are accusing NASA of making a ruckus.
Mind you, I’m not disagreeing. Criticize NASA’s press policy if you wish; sure, they might have misled the public a little. But just how big a bonehead do you have to be to jump from “NASA won’t tell us what their press conference is about” to “OMG ALIENS!!!!”
And what the hell am I gonna do with a thousand liters of Evian?