(image courtesy )
NASA rocked the scientific world today with a HUGE announcement: Possible aliens! That’s the gist of it, at least. The less exciting part is that they found a bacteria that eats arsenic. But if there’s a bacteria that can survive on arsenic, it proves something that’s simply been a theory so far, that life can exist on non-traditional elements.
According to CNN:
The bacterium — strain GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae family of Gammaproteobacteria — was scooped from sediment in California’s Mono Lake, an area rife with high levels of naturally occurring arsenic, it said.
Scientists were able to grow the microbes from the lake with only small portions of phosphorous — considered an essential nutrient in the biomolecules of naturally occurring bacteria.
“We’ve discovered an organism that can substitute one element for another,” said NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon. “Nothing should have grown. Put your plant in the dark, it doesn’t grow.”
The bacterium not only grew but also incorporated the arsenic molecules into its DNA, in place of phosphorus, she said.
“We’ve cracked open the door to what’s possible elsewhere in the universe,” Wolfe-Simon said during a press conference Thursday.
Now, I am not a scientist, but this is pretty cool! It opens up a huge world of possibilities! Maybe this means we have extraterrestrial neighbors on Saturn! Or sunbathing aliens on Mercury! Hopefully they’re the nice aliens like on “Star Trek”, and not the less pleasant version from “Independence Day”. I realize I’m totally geeking out here, but this is very exciting, and something I’ve wondered about since I was old enough to grasp the concept of planets and space.
For my fellow non-scientific types, I looked up some information on phosphorus, and why this is such a big discovery. According to(sidenote, how awesome is it that Wikipedia is already updated with the arsenic munching bacteria reference?):
Phosphorus is a key element in all known forms of life (although one species of bacterium is able to substitute arsenic for at least some purposes). Inorganic phosphorus in the form of the phosphate PO43– plays a major role in biological molecules such as DNA and RNA where it forms part of the structural framework of these molecules. Living cells also use phosphate to transport cellular energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Nearly every cellular process that uses energy obtains it in the form of ATP. ATP is also important for phosphorylation, a key regulatory event in cells. Phospholipids are the main structural components of all cellular membranes. Calcium phosphate salts assist in stiffening bones.
Every cell has a membrane that separates it from its surrounding environment. Biological membranes are made from a phospholipid matrix and proteins, typically in the form of a bilayer. Phospholipids are derived from glycerol, such that two of the glycerol hydroxyl (OH) protons have been replaced with fatty acids as an ester, and the third hydroxyl proton has been replaced with phosphate bonded to another alcohol.
So basically, these bacteria turn all the rules around. While it doesn’t seem like this discovery is going to change the world tomorrow, it does make us (as humans/inhabitants of earth) seem even smaller, given the vast possibilities across the universe. Not as shattering as confirming the earth isn’t flat, but I wonder if history will look upon this as a scientific footnote or a major turning point in our future?