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NASA Science

California Lake's Arsenic Hints At a Shadow Biosphere 155

Posted by timothy
from the some-more-tea-dear? dept.
MichaelSmith writes "Scientists think that there might be arsenic-based life in Mono Lake, California. If it's shown to exist, such life could have evolved independently from our own, or it could have forked from ours at a very early stage."
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California Lake's Arsenic Hints At a Shadow Biosphere

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  • Arsenic life forms = Super rats (resistant to rat poison). Oh boy!

    • by rockNme2349 (1414329) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:55AM (#31378844)

      Super rodents? I don't believe in them.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by mysidia (191772)

      The good news is said super rats have no appetite for our carbon-based non-arsenic containing foods.

      The bad news is the super rats' excrement will fill the soil with the poison, eventually getting into the water and plants, and killing us all

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by nospam007 (722110) *

      ALF

    • I bet it will turn out the only way to kill them is to feed them cheddar.
  • Hmm.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:14AM (#31378628) Journal
    Any organism with an Adenosine triarsenate based energy transport structure would be a serious badass.

    Arsenic and Phosphorus are quite similar, chemically; but I'm not nearly chemist enough to know if there are messy details preventing a suitably evolved biological system from substituting one for the other.

    Though, this being the internet, I'm obliged to note that Chuck Norris already does.
    • Re:Hmm.. (Score:5, Informative)

      by wizardforce (1005805) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @01:00AM (#31378862) Journal

      but I'm not nearly chemist enough to know if there are messy details preventing a suitably evolved biological system from substituting one for the other.

      Well for one, a great deal of biochemistry involves ATP in normal life forms that has little to do with energy transport. Proteins can be activated through phosphorylation by ATP. DNA is constructed using ATP and its base analogues. Glucose must be phosphorylated twice before it is done being biochemically broken down to reducing equivalents and CO2. These processes especially phosphorylation of proteins and DNA structure, all work because PO4 is the right size. A system based on AsO4 would have proteins and genetic structure much different than our own structurally speaking. Also, the triarsenate analogues could very well be markedly unstable.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by kabdib (81955)

        "Markedly unstable" = /exploding/ poison super rats ?

        That'd be fantastic.

      • Re:Hmm.. (Score:4, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 06, 2010 @01:57PM (#31381804)

        but I'm not nearly chemist enough to know if there are messy details preventing a suitably evolved biological system from substituting one for the other.

        Well for one, a great deal of biochemistry involves ATP in normal life forms that has little to do with energy transport. Proteins can be activated through phosphorylation by ATP. DNA is constructed using ATP and its base analogues. Glucose must be phosphorylated twice before it is done being biochemically broken down to reducing equivalents and CO2. These processes especially phosphorylation of proteins and DNA structure, all work because PO4 is the right size. A system based on AsO4 would have proteins and genetic structure much different than our own structurally speaking. Also, the triarsenate analogues could very well be markedly unstable.

        The Times article is dreadful.
        Ronald S. Oremland of the USGS has been researching this for years. He is a fascinating speaker on the subject.
        He has shown that there are microbes in Mono Lake that have an arsenic based metabolism.He and his team have elucidated a good part of the metabolic pathways involved Similar microbes are found in soil as well.

        For a brief over view of the metabolism see http://microbiology.usgs.gov/geomicrobiology_arsenic.html [usgs.gov]

  • by acehole (174372) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:16AM (#31378636) Homepage

    Can we eat them and are they tasty?

  • by mmkkbb (816035) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:19AM (#31378656) Homepage Journal

    This Monolake? [monolake.de]

  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:19AM (#31378660)

    The highly intelligent life would find it bizarre that some organisms would actually thrive in an atmosphere with such a dangerous and corrosive gas like oxygen.

  • by Group XVII (1714286) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:20AM (#31378666) Journal
    • by Hurricane78 (562437) <deleted @ s l a s h d ot.org> on Saturday March 06, 2010 @05:51AM (#31379714)

      Well, the answer is still: No.

      I just read TFA. (Yeah, I know, shame on me. ;)

      And actually, she is just taking buckets of the water, diluting them so they contain more arsenic and less phosphorus, and adding sugar etc, to see if she finds organisms who then thrive.
      But the point is: She still found nothing at all. She’s just taking water and playing with it.

      Now of course I’m not saying that the theory isn’t true. Since we simply don’t know it yet.
      So her work is good and I’m happy she does it.

      Just... saying that there is arsenic life there... is just disingenuous. If you know what I mean.
      But I bet she did not intent to be disingenuous. Instead I bet, that the media hype machine is to blame.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by ascari (1400977)

        The other thing that struck me about TFA is that maybe she is a bit limited in her approach: Sugars and vitamins are all fine, but just beacuse they're mostly beneficial to "actual" life doesn't mean that they are to (hypothetical) "alternate" life. Maybe she's inadvertently killing whatever stuff there is in her water buckets? She should try mixing in other stuff as well.

        Come to think of it, small humans often react "Vitamins!?! Aarrrrgh!". They do seem to tolerate sugar pretty well though.

      • I agree we're probably dealing with some media hype and also a scientist who's (probably justifiably) being tight lipped. What the author of the news article wants to lead us to is pretty obvious: holy shit arsenic-eating bacteria that evolved completely independently from everything else, a second genesis!!!1!!!!one!!! To which Dr. Wolfe-Simon does the double-facepalm mentioned up at the top of the comments.

        In the article, Dr. Wolfe-Simon is not saying what she's found at all. The only thing she's vo
      • "Dr Wolfe-Simon has taken samples from the mud and the waters of the lake and is performing a series of multiple dilutions — hugely increasing the levels of arsenic and reducing residual phosphorous to zero." [emphasis mine]

        Shouldn't that read "greatly reducing"?

        I'm not usually a linguistic pedant, lest I find myself hoist by my own pedantetry, but reading that sentence almost made my brain segfault: wait: diluting, causing an increase in something, toward zero? Arghhhh!

  • Amazing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by blaster151 (874280) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:29AM (#31378702)
    I had just read about this possibility today in this book [amazon.com], a fascinating compendium of mini-essays by leading thinkers about scientific or social developments that may be around the corner. Existing tests for biological organisms are geared towards a working asssumption that life forms will be part of the basic, familiar biological tree that we are based on. A "shadow biosphere" was discussed as something that could potentially be an alternative hierarchy of life, so unfamiliar that we haven't understood how to look for it even though it could be relatively populous in certain niche areas of the earth.

    Finding an alternative pathway to the evolution of complex life forms could affect our perception of how common life is in the universe and could be a stunning treasure trove of discovery and insight for biologists.
  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:30AM (#31378708)
    Why should this merit our attention? All she does is speculate about it. I just read the paper she wrote about it in January of last year, and that was almost pure speculation too.

    Tell you what: call us back when there is something to actually show us in this area. So far there is next to nothing but somebody's wild idea.

    In the meantime, I have a theory of my own: all dinosaurs were thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, then thin again at the other end.

    Can I get a research grant please?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by wizardforce (1005805)

      Why should this merit our attention?

      For the same reason archea do: a fundamentally new form of life is of interest to us scientifically. Right now it's mostly speculation but that is why experiments are being done; to test hypotheses and support or discredit speculation on the subject. It is certainly worth looking into at the least.

      • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @01:00AM (#31378860)
        You have completely missed my point (as did, no doubt, those who modded it "troll"):

        There is as yet -- even according to the recent paper she wrote -- virtually no evidence that a lifeform such as this exists. Sure, I am interested in new scientific findings. But this isn't a finding! It isn't news. It's just speculation. I submit that until there is some kind of evidence, her theory is worth just as much as the one I mentioned above. I.e., nothing.

        This article is not worthy of Slashdot. If I want to read speculations about unusual life forms, I can just go pick up a science fiction book at the local store, which in many cases will contain at least as much science as presented here.

        And I guess, in a nutshell, that is my point: We are shown no science here. And until there is some, this article was worth no more to me than the science fiction book I mentioned before. Less, in fact. Novels at least tend to be entertaining.
        • by Group XVII (1714286) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @01:29AM (#31378996) Journal
          It's well informed speculation. It seems like a methodical approach to developing a research agenda, and indeed we are told actual experiments are being conducted. I don't have any reason to doubt that. Probably more that a few people will find the topic fascinating. I'm sympathetic to your objection but it might be overstated.
        • by deander2 (26173) * <public&kered,org> on Saturday March 06, 2010 @02:22AM (#31379164) Homepage

          developing a methodology to search for something is usually considered publishable research in and of itself. (if said methodology is genuinely unique) the results (be they positive or negative) are often presented in a follow-up paper.

          • by kevinadi (191992)

            That is very true, as a new methodology if tested workable, can pave the way for future research in itself.

            Another reason to split the methodology/result in two papers is that usually (in my area) a paper is very limited in page count, so you usually have no space to present a method, prove that it's workable, present result, and analyze the result. You can either do two papers with decent explanations, or one paper that is unreadable and makes no sense because everything is horribly compressed. People usua

        • by Lije Baley (88936) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @02:44AM (#31379224)

          Not worthy of Slashdot? ROFL. You must be have been asleep for the last 10 years.

        • by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @02:56AM (#31379272)

          You a) never worked in a scientific field and b) have no clue where scientific breakthroughs come from. Here's a clue: every single scientific breakthrough started in the same way: this is strange... I wonder if.... The big "proofs", the big shiny toys, the Nobel prizes are all the culmination of a long process that started with someone, somewhere going down a road that is based on sheer speculation. Many fail, a few succeed, but it all starts the same.

          Yes, this is early. Yes, this is largely speculation. However, she does have a protocol, experiments that can produce data that can support her theory and a place where to start.

          I'm glad science isn't done by bores like you, because we'd never get anything new.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            I said nothing against her science. I mentioned myself that she seemed to have a protocol. So what's your point? I would like to see the results (positive or negative) of her research, too. But like a number of others here, you have missed the point. Here idea is anything but new. It is ancient. What I want to read about is something new.

            Okay, so she has a protocol. Let's call that something new (it may be). So then why isn't the article about the protocol -- the new thing -- rather than about the old ti
          • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

            And by that I mean, I am the one who is bored. I knew of the possibility of life based on different chemistry when I was 10 years old. I am quite a bit older than that now. So show me something new already. Until you do, YOU are being boring.
          • And what of it? All he was saying is that it's not news-worthy until there are results. Then we'll get tremendously excited about them. Right now it's her business, and that of anyone else she can get enthusiastic about it, to actually do some science. Once there's a result it becomes the business of other scientists and reporters and laypeople to get interested.
        • by tsa (15680)

          I guess in the early 20th century a lot of people said the same about this weird thing called quantum physics that some people suddenly came up with.

        • It's be known for years that there are bacteria and archaea in Mono Lake that integrate arsenic into their biochemistry. Nothing new here, except a Johnny-cum-lately researcher looking for a bit of hype, which dumb-ass science journalists are always ready to give.

      • by ozbird (127571)

        For the same reason archea do: a fundamentally new form of life is of interest to us scientifically.

        Archaea, by definition, are a fundamentally old form of life that has done very nicely for a few billion years.

        Humans are ignorant; film at 11.

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          Archaea, by definition, are a fundamentally old form of life that has done very nicely for a few billion years.

          I think that you'll find that the Archaea are, by definition, a group of prokaryotes that have certain specific wall structures, biochemical oddities, and environmental preferences. Things that can be readily measured. "old" is not something that can be readily measured (unless you've got a time machine with a built in Automatic Paradox Resolution Wombat).
          It is proposed (though by no means universa

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MichaelSmith (789609)

      Well okay but from the article:

      But she hopes that her research may help scientists to reconsider what alien or “weird” life might look like: “It may prove that there are other possibilities that are beyond our imagination. It opens the door for us to think about biology in ways we have never thought. We are going to look for life on other planets and we only know to look for that which we know. This may help us to develop tools to look for something we have never seen.”

      I think this is a good point because we are starting to get spectra from planets around other stars. If we find a planet with composition and other parameters similar to our own we may assume that life as we know it exists there. But life on these planets may not be as we know it, and we need to understand how it might work.

      So yeah this is speculation, but I think it is worthwhile doing now.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        Perhaps it is a good point, but the very same point was made in books of fiction no less than 100 years ago. So I ask again: what merits its mention now?

        Despite the mods, my comment was not intended as trolling. There is nothing new here. This is an old idea she is re-hashing. Sure, it's (very) mildly interesting that she thinks she has an experimental way to verify the presence of something. But until there is some actual data, I'm simply not interested in rehashing such ancient ideas.
        • by kevinadi (191992)

          What's new in this is the possibility of a life form to live in a highly poisonous condition, and breathe poison like us breathe air. This is very exciting indeed if she got some preliminary data (which she said she does) and publish it. Science fiction authors, on the other hand, do not bother to perform experiments and write papers. They just speculate. She is doing something with that speculation, with methods that are responsible and repeatable.

          We have science and progress because of speculations like t

          • No, that's not new at all. Obviously you are not a fan of science fiction. The idea (and I mean the idea that it could be reality) of life based on different chemistry has been hashed around for many decades. Arsenic instead of phosphorus, silicon instead of carbon, liquid methane instead of water, you name it. It's been done. As an idea, that is.

            That is my whole point here, which so many have seemed to have missed. This is NOT new. I come to Slashdot to learn about NEW things. I eagerly await the result
            • by Boronx (228853)

              Is this Sci-Fi-Same-as-Reality troll a new kind of Slashdot lifeform or has it existed for Eons beneath my notice?

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by kevinadi (191992)

              I think you're missing the point of the article.

              It is NOT about poison-breathing animal found in science fiction. Its main point is the possibility that a SECOND BIOSPHERE, one that we are unfamiliar with and thus undiscovered, may exist on earth. IF we can detect the existence of the second biosphere, we have a greater chance of finding alien life, simply because all life-detection techniques that are being used today rely on the premise that ALL LIFE is oxygen-breathing, carbon-based like us.

              The impact of

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Tablizer (95088)

      I have a theory of my own: all dinosaurs were thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, then thin again at the other end.

      Middle age will do that to ya
           

    • She's being a scientist of the most famous type - she's calling the play before hand. She's putting her reputation on the line, making a prediction, describing a means to test it, and then going to check it herself. She's arguing in the oldest of sense that her insight is right, and in doing so if she gets the job done and is actually right, she's going to be pretty darned famous.

      This is far removed from a scientist making a droll statement based on a computer model. She's saying, there is another radically different kind of life on earth and that she is going to show us how to find it. It's worlds beyond cool. She's trying to be like Babe Ruth calling the home run before he does it, and the world just loves that sort of a thing. In a world where people live around the edges and fritter away at them, she's trying to kick open an entirely door. She gets it, and in a very intuitive and natural way, what a scientist is supposed to be - a leader, because their education gives them intuition born out by test, that shows us how to see new things. Life in a dead lake, alien to our own, how much more of a prediction do you need?

      • You have made the only point so far that (IMO) is worth any points. Okay, she had the ovaries to make a judgment call, and she is staking reputation on it. Good point. And if I were a betting person, I would give her just about 50-50 odds. Personally, I hope she does finding something. But until she does, I am going to snore through articles like this one.
    • by migla (1099771)

      Well, your theory is plagiarism! That's a Monty Python sketch. ... google google... seems the sketch I'm thinking of was about brontosaur... ii(?).

      So, you posit that the theory on the brontosaurus could be generalized to all dinosaurs?

      Interesting development...

  • by SEWilco (27983) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:36AM (#31378738) Journal
    Don't you hate when someone forks a project and then forgets about it, leaving an odd little version buried in an obscure corner?
  • A bit of a stretch (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    There's zero evidence it's pure speculation. Also there's nothing saying a traditional life form can't adapt to arsenic. Unless it has a radically different biology it's likely just adapted to the environment. Other lifeforms here have adapted to use toxic agents. Silicone based life would be alien but simply using arsenic doesn't mean alien. One massive problem is the age of the lake. It would have had to have evolved in relatively recent times. It's kind of the Loch Ness Monster problem, it's just not tha

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MichaelSmith (789609)

      there's nothing saying a traditional life form can't adapt to arsenic.

      Thats true. The article points out that early life may have had the flexibility to adapt to wildly different environments.

      Silicone based life

      I know: women with breast implants!

      It would have had to have evolved in relatively recent times.

      Maybe it came out of a volcano [wikipedia.org]?

      Volcanic activity persisted past 5 million years BP east of the current park borders in the Mono Lake and Long Valley areas.

      Yeah its speculation, but interesting all the same.

      • by gyrogeerloose (849181) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @01:48AM (#31379054) Journal

        Just FYI, Mono Lake lies in an area that's still quite volcanically active, with many hot springs and fumaroles including a couple that can be seen right from U.S. Route 395, the main highway that runs through the region. In fact, the Long Valley area you mentioned is the caldera of a potential super volcano.

        The whole area is also very beautiful in an almost other-worldly way. It looks sort of like one of the better Star Trek (TOS) sets.

  • I'll wait to read the paper to see what the findings are, but I'm not casting a doubt that it's a possibility that life could incorporate arsenic or phosphorus. There are bacteria out there that reduce nitrogen and sulfur for energy, Life is pretty resilient when it comes down to it, and will find a way to exist.
  • Arsenic? Mono? Shadow? Fork? Somebody has a sick sense of humor.
     

  • Surprised (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Neuticle (255200) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @02:56AM (#31379270) Homepage

    There is Arsenic in a lake, in California, that might support a unique form of life.

    To me, the most surprising thing is that California has not already declared it a disaster zone and spent $45 million trying to "clean" it up.

    • by Belial6 (794905) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @05:20AM (#31379624)
      No, here in California, we are smart enough to recognize that the Arsenic in the lake is naturally occurring, and is therefor healthy. No doubt one of our enterprising vegans will be bottling it and selling it with a big 'organic' label strung across the front.
      • by adonoman (624929)
        Yea, I hate those Easterners who package up that synthetic arsenic and try and pass is off as "natural". Meat-loving jerks.
      • by bar-agent (698856)

        No doubt one of our enterprising vegans will be bottling it and selling it with a big 'organic' label strung across the front.

        Oh, that would be hi-larious. Any of you guys live near Mono Lake? Do it. Dooo eeeeet!

  • by tsa (15680)

    That would be the coolest thing biologists ever discovered. Way cooler than the Sulfur-based life forms in the deep sea.

  • And we expect life on other planets to require oxygen, water, and carbon... when we don’t even know what life is here on earth...

    According to Wikipedia, there are titan breathers, and even uranium breathers, who thrive in hot sulfuric acid.

    So I fear that we will not even look at where we would find the first life. Or dismiss it as impossible to live.

    • by RockDoctor (15477)

      According to Wikipedia, there are titan breathers, and even uranium breathers, who thrive in hot sulfuric acid.

      Citation please. So I can go and drag that article, kicking and screaming, (back) into some sort of contact with reality.

  • Am I the only one who reads "blogosphere" every time he sees biosphere?

    Are there arsenic-based bloggers out there talking about politics and trading arsenic-based biscotti recipes?

    • Am I the only one who reads "blogosphere" every time he sees biosphere?

      Sadly, no. I was expecting the article to be a conspiracy theory on some sort of blogosphere cabal that's been plotting to do something with arsenic.

  • "ARSEnic based life form" has so much potential for /. humour,where is it?
  • Shadow BIOS (Score:2, Funny)

    by edbob (960004)
    Did anyone else click on this thinking it was a story about a "shadow BIOS"? I thought that "California Lake" must be some sort of software company and "Arsenic" was the name of the program they developed to detect a "shadow BIOS".
  • Here's [wikipedia.org] an interesting, if short, discussion on various ways life on Earth could have been structured.

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