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NASA Science

California Lake's Arsenic Hints At a Shadow Biosphere 155

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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  • by olsmeister ( 1488789 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:21AM (#31378672)
    Eating arsenic-based life forms? I'll leave that for you. I know you're just joking, but If by some inconceivable chance they do exist, one pretty good guess at why they're still here is that arsenic is extremely toxic, which as far as biological defenses go is a pretty good one.
  • by Shadow of Eternity ( 795165 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @12:25AM (#31378686)

    Makes me wonder if we would be as toxic to them as they would be to us...

  • 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 [], 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 MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @01:21AM (#31378966) Homepage Journal

    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 []?

    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.

  • by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @02:45AM (#31379230)

    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

  • by SEE ( 7681 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @06:38AM (#31379822) Homepage

    Probably. Arsenic is toxic to us because of its chemical similarity to phosphorous. It reacts enough like phosphorous to get pulled into various reactions in our cells, and then enough differently to make the processes fail. In an organism that used arsenic instead of phosphorous, phosphorous would cause the same trouble.

    Computer analogy -- In the old Eastern Bloc, clones of Western chips were reportedly made using "metric inches" of 25 millimeters instead of American inches of 25.4 mm. This worked fine electrically and mechanically when all the gear you were using was made to the same spec, but if you unknowingly tried to put a Western-made chip on 1/10th inch spacing into an Eastern Bloc socket on 2.5 mm spacing, or vice-versa, the incompatibility could cause failures. Similarly, it might be possible to build a cellular chemistry using arsenic instead of phosphorous. But if you put arsenic into a creature built with phosphorous or vice-versa, you're likely going to have failures as the cell unknowingly plugs the wrong element in.

  • by ascari ( 1400977 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @09:14AM (#31380182)

    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.

The best book on programming for the layman is "Alice in Wonderland"; but that's because it's the best book on anything for the layman.