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NASA Science

NASA Finds New Life (This Afternoon) 405

While the official 2pm conference should have more answers, most of the internet has decided that NASA has discovered a completely new life form based on arsenic instead of the more traditional organic materials. We'll know more in a few hours.
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NASA Finds New Life (This Afternoon)

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday December 02, 2010 @11:41AM (#34417696) Journal
    Mono Lake was mentioned back in 2009 [] and in March [] as potentially harboring this 'shadow biosphere.' Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the geobiologist credited with this [] (Iron Lisa = Felisa, get it?) led me to an interesting PDF [] that begins:

    If you were asked to speculate about the form extra-terrestrial life on Mars might take, which geomicrobial phenomenon might you select as a model system, assuming that life on Mars would be 'primitive'? Give your reasons.

    At the end of my senior year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1968, I took Professor Ehrlich’s final for his Geomicrobiology course. The above question beckoned to me like the Sirens to Odysseus, for if I answered, it would take so much time and thought that I would never get around to the exam’s other essay questions and consequently, would be "shipwrecked" by flunking the course. So, I passed it up.With this 41-year perspective in mind, this manuscript is now submitted to Professor Ehrlich for (belated) "extra-credit." R.S. Oremland

    This has been an interesting topic in sci-fi [], I recall an X-Files that revolved around silicon based life.

    I certainly hope that we get more details than this teaser (all other news articles seem to point back to Gizmodo). From the sound of this leak I can't tell if the DNA itself is foreign or if it's made of the same Adenine, Thymine, Guanine and Cytosine with similar hydrogen bonds or if the DNA is similar but different in functionality or if it doesn't create proteins and RNA the same way or if phosphorus component is just switched with arsenic (two very similar elements prebiotic chemically) or if the whole bacteria is made of arsenic. At what point in the chain of DNA to organism does this thing seriously differ? The Gizmodo article is painfully weak on detail.

    • by Halo1 ( 136547 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @11:52AM (#34417882)

      According to an article by the official Flemish news service [], the beans were already spilled this afternoon in a documentary shown by a Dutch broadcast service (VPRO) on this topic. It's indeed about Mono lake and Felisa Wolfe-Simon. The article also contains a small film fragment in which they confirms that it's indeed about a life form that uses arsenic instead of phosphor (it also contains some sound bytes from the researcher, in English).

    • First time I heard of Mono Lake was via Mark Twain: []

      Sounds like a really weird place.

    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      Its first communication: "Ugly bags of mostly water!"

      "To reach out to new life and new civilizations. To baldly go where no one has ever gone before."

      I don't understand this; the announcement that there was going to be a press conference today was posted a few days ago. Why not wait until NASA announces it to post today's story?

    • "I recall an X-Files that revolved around silicon based life"

      No kill I. []

      Soon, another guard is killed and a circulation pump, vital to the colony's main reactor, is stolen. Unfortunately, the entire unit is obsolete, and no replacement is available. The original component must be found within 48 hours or the reactor will fail, rendering the mine uninhabitable. Scotty improvises a temporary replacement pump. Spock suggests that the creature might be a silicon-

    • by bluie- ( 1172769 )
      "Yes, is the alien carbon-based or silicone-based?"

      "Uh, the second one. Zillifone. Next question."
      1. Silicon-based life : not possible, it doesn't form a diverse enough range of compounds.
      2. Foreign DNA - low sequence identity with highly conserved proteins (histones, for example) would be odd. I doubt that is the case here.
      3. ATCG - there is really only one way for these bases to form DNA. Well, there's A, B, and Z forms, and telomeres, but no new ways.
      4. Different transcription/translation; possible, but again doubtful. Might have different tRNAs, I guess, if there are some special requirements for arsenate-am
  • I can't wait for the public to give a collective yawn over this exciting news. I've been trying to educate people at work today about why this is such a big deal, but their responses have generally been "oh, more bacteria...yay."


  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 02, 2010 @11:46AM (#34417762)
    Stop arguing that life on earth is a special, special snowflake, created by a God who looks just like us? If a deity exists, clearly they are just as likely to be made of arsenic.
    • by Pojut ( 1027544 )

      In theory, life on this planet is an absurd idea. Think about it: we're on the fringes of the galaxy, out in the of the emptiest, coldest, and darkest part. If anything, life would be most likely to exist closer to the core.

      We're not special...we're the exception.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by uncanny ( 954868 )
        were you trying to answer his question or just talking?
      • I'd argue that life is more likely where we are for the simple reason that this is where we exist. I would have thought there's a lot more potential for encountering harmful radiation, among other things, closer to the core.

      • Except that may be this saves us from deadly gamma rays from the core
      • by ChromaticDragon ( 1034458 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @12:06PM (#34418104)

        Now, now...

        Galactic suburbia isn't quite so bad. Nice and stable. Helps to keep those planetary orbits from changing too much or too quickly. I mean a good wallop a long time ago to create the moon is all well and good. But after a while you just want to settle down. We really don't to get pelted with comets and planetoids all that often.

        Things are a lot tougher closer to the core. It's simply much to busy. Nearby stars bustling together. Everybody taking these whiplash commutes around the central black hole. Pesky neighboring stars who keep perturbing your Oort cloud sending debris down on you regularly. Many young stars just cannot handle it. Oh they seem successful; the get nice and big. But they just explode. And let me tell you, you just don't want to live where you could get shot up every few million years or so.

      • > If anything, life would be most likely to exist closer to the core.

        Things are a little too exciting close to the core. It's better out here where we can get a few billion years of peace and quiet.

      • In theory, life on this planet is an absurd idea.


        Are you saying that in theory, life is unlikely?

        Are you saying that in theory, life is unlikely here?

        What theory actually says this?

        Think about it: we're on the fringes of the galaxy, out in the of the emptiest, coldest, and darkest part.

        Well, no, not really. We're pretty close to a reasonably warm star. Given the evidence, if seems that our distance from that star is more important than its distance to other stars.

        If anything, life would be most likely to exist closer to the core.


        What theory says that being in an area with higher star density would be more conducive to life?

        I can formulate several theories to explain why being close to the "core" is worse:

        Too much r

    • No one said anything about looking like us. "In his image" means being the highest form of life on this planet, possessing the power to both create and destroy on a level far beyond anything else we know of.
      For that matter, nothing that I know of in the Bible precludes the existence of life elsewhere, man's arrogant interpretations of it do.
  • by flogger ( 524072 ) <non@nonegiven> on Thursday December 02, 2010 @11:55AM (#34417916) Journal

    NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn't share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth.

    This makes it seem as if extraterrestrial life was found. But this was found in Mono Lake, California? So is it Life, as in living? ore life as in "was" living? I'll be tuning in at the conference.

    • by Pojut ( 1027544 )

      The point was that it means that life could exist in ways we haven't even conceived of yet. It's not the finding itself that's important, but rather confirmation that we don't know dick. The confirmation of such a thing widely expands the possibility of finding life elsewhere, because it is a direct example of how much we could potentially have wrong.

      Again, it's not the finding itself that's important, but rather the implications of this type of discovery.

      • I could have told you before this discovery that we don't know dick.

        We pat ourselves on the back, thinking we are so advanced, and yet we have entire classes of people stealing money from those who work to give to those who don't want to, while the genuinely needy and helpless often go without any kind of aid and have to eat garbage and live in cardboard shacks. We engage in wars over really trivial shit, because a few tyrants at the top in each respective country don't like each other very much.

        We certainl

    • It's life, flogger, but not as we know it.

    • the environment is mono lake is so different (and hostile to life as we know it) that it might as well be ET.

  • According to Alexis Madrigal, the answer is no. []
  • 1, Do they believe in God?
    2, Can we have sex with them?

    (Yeah, I know, it's a bacteria.)

  • I'm curious as to what NASA has to do with this, Mono Lake being in California and all.

  • This smells of an article that got a little over-excited on speculation. If its just using arsonic as part of its respiration, that's not earth-shaking news - it's already known some bacteria do this.
  • From TFA it looks like there is just 1 molecule different. Could it be possible that a Phosphate got replaced by Arsenic by some environmental condition and the fact that they were poisonous to most other life it allowed them to evolve further. A bacteria got lucky it didn't die after a mutation.

    • Re:Evolution (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Captain Hook ( 923766 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @01:07PM (#34419136)

      Thats one possibility, but there is a second possibility which is what I think NASA would be so excited about if true. What if it's not a mutation in Bacteria which used Phosphorus, but a completely seperate lineage of life, with no common ancestor.

      If that were true, it doesn't mean it has to be Extraterrestial, it could be direct evidence that life on Earth started at least twice, under different conditions in different places and times. It would have huge implications in terms of how likely life is to start else where in the Solar System/Galaxy/Universe if the environmental conditions are right.

  • For those of us who don't know biology well, what does this really mean? What is phosphorous used for in our cells, and how does arsenic change things? Searching for "phosphorous-based life" comes up with discussiong on phosphorous, silicon, and other elements instead of *carbon*, but these new bacteria are still made of the same carbon building blocks as us, no?

    • by Hyppy ( 74366 )
      ATP (cellular energy) is adenosine triphosphate. Arsenic generally works by reacting with this and, essentially, unplugging the fuel tank for cells.
  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @12:05PM (#34418066)

    I, for one, welcome are new arsenic-based overlords.

  • Obligatory (Score:4, Funny)

    by Yvan256 ( 722131 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @12:05PM (#34418070) Homepage Journal

    It's life, Jim, but not as we know it.

  • This is about a bacterium which replaced its phosphorus (not its carbon) with arsenic. Nothing to see here, move along!
    • by tgd ( 2822 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @12:20PM (#34418326)

      There's nothing to see here if it can be shown that there is a sequence of changes that can go directly from point A to point B (A being "life" -- without a firm definition, but "life" using phosphorus, and B being identical "life" using arsenic instead) where every step of the path between forms a viable chemistry that continues to be "life".

      If you can't do that, then there's pretty significant reason to think that along with the handful of times life likely arose on Earth with a chemistry that *can* be linked that way to now, it arose a time using a completely different chemistry.

      That latter would mean two VERY important things -- the conditions that life could arise in is a lot broader than we believe AND, if its got similar genetics and use of amino acids, that the opportunistic use of amino acids (which are known to be extremely common in space) isn't a rare thing.

      This are staggering, dicipline-changing insights unless someone can show a path from A-B.

      • by cnettel ( 836611 )
        The proof will probably not be a path, but rather the level of similarities. If the genetic code is indeed arsenic-based, the interesting aspect will be to see what length of matching sequence we can find to existing code. I can buy that amino acids were used in an opportunistic way as a neat solution to generality, flexibility and tendency for chemical reactions. However, if the code is based on three-base codons and if a reasonable amount of those codons match their traditional-life counterparts, then thi
  • Now, we need to send a robot to Saturn's moon Titan and see if life exists there. []
    Titan's surface temperature appears to be about -178C (-289F). Methane appears to be below its saturation pressure near Titan's surface; rivers and lakes of methane probably don't exist, in spite of the tantalizing analogy to water on Earth. On the other hand, scientists believe lakes of ethane exist that contain dissolved methane. Titan's methane, through continuing photochemistry, is converted to ethane, acetylene, ethylene
  • If it's based on Arsenic, it's probably not edible...

  • ...about a lifeform based on silicon, not carbon. Instead of exhaling carbon dioxide, they shit sand (or something like that). Anyone remember the name/author?

  • I 100% guarantee you that they'll be poised to make last minute dialogue chances to whatever Parking-Lot Epic is just about to start filming. Run, Kristy Swanson, the arsenic based blob is after you!
  • Are there any more arsenic lakes around the world ?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    has a common ancestor with us, or if it emerged entirely separately. If it did emerge separately from the 'spark' which started our family off, then it makes it incredibly more likely that the universe is absolutely teeming with life.

    If we find any signs of common ancestory, however far back they are, it would suggest that life only 'began' on this life once, and leaves open the possibility that we are on our own.

  • by Ignorant Aardvark ( 632408 ) <cydeweys AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday December 02, 2010 @12:25PM (#34418402) Homepage Journal

    Taking the speculation in the article at face value, and thus assuming that NASA has found an arsenic-based lifeform in a shadow biosphere on Earth, here's why it's important:

    All life on Earth that we know of is related. It all uses the same basic DNA/RNA mechanisms (including the same four base pairs), uses the same specific molecules that prominently feature carbon as the basic assembly blocks of the cell, etc. To use the ever-popular car analogy, cars can look quite different from each other, but they're all still essentially made out of the same things: bolts, gears, copper wiring, etc.

    Well this other kind of life is completely different. It's so different that we know it cannot possibly be related to all of the other Earth life that we've known about thus far, as there is nothing in common. That means abiogenesis (the spontaneous generation of life from precursor non-living materials) happened at least TWICE on just this one planet.

    So while this isn't extra-terrestrial life, it does have all sorts of potential ramifications on the potential existence of extra-terrestrial life. Before today, it was possible to speculate that one solution to Drake's Equation was simply that spontaneous generation of life was so rare that it only happened once, ever. But if we now found that it's happened multiple times just on this one planet ... then hell, it could be happening everywhere, all the time.

    • by pesho ( 843750 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @01:02PM (#34419056)
      If Arsenic replaces phosphorus and the rest is carbon based it is still very likely for it to be related to the rest of the life forms on Earth. In my view the most significant implication of this is that it can be the base of huge branch of the biotech industry - genetically enginieered bugs that make nasty stuff like biofuels or are used to detoxify industrial waste. The advantage is that it will not grow outside the very limited environment that provides the necessary arsenic. So if you accidentally spill the toxic tank the bug is not going to propagate and contaminate the rest of the world.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      All life on Earth that we know of is related. It all uses the same basic DNA/RNA mechanisms (including the same four base pairs), uses the same specific molecules that prominently feature carbon as the basic assembly blocks of the cell, etc.

      Hate to bring you down, but from everything I hear, the life isn't "arsenic-based" in the same sense that we're "carbon-based". Instead, all indications are that it's "simply" arsenic replacing phosphorus in the DNA backbone.

      As a biochemist, I can almost assure you that the rest of the DNA looks the same. That is, these organisms have the same A/T/C/G DNA bases. I'd guess the (deoxy)ribose sugar part of the sugar-phosphate backbone is the same. It's just the phosphorus in the phosphate has been replaced by

  • This will change everything *in scientific circles*. It will change exactly nothing at all in real life.

    Fuck, if we were to find not bacteria, but fully-fledged intelligent lifeforms, nothing would change. The vatican and a half-dozen other religions would send missionaries, and half of the world's population would look down at them because they don't have "the right DNA" and that's "against nature".

    I honestly don't know what it would take to get those admittedly very natural but in this day and age a bit u

  • by frovingslosh ( 582462 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @12:43PM (#34418696)
    That's hard to believe. If a life form based on arsenic did evolve it would have big bulging eyes and its skin would be gray.
  • or maybe (Score:5, Funny)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <<moc.oohay> <ta> <dnaltropnidad>> on Thursday December 02, 2010 @12:57PM (#34418958) Homepage Journal

    Man walks up to podium: *tap* *tap* *tap* "Is this thing on"

    Man: "We all have 2 hours to live."
    Man walks off stage.

  • by Doofus ( 43075 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @02:03PM (#34420174)
    The Washington Post has a story on the finding, Second Genesis on Earth? []


    But now researchers have uncovered a bacterium that has five of those essential elements but has, in effect, replaced phosphorus with its look-alike but toxic cousin, arsenic.

    News of the discovery caused a scientific commotion, including calls to NASA from the White House and Congress asking if a second line of Earthly life has been found.

    A NASA press conference Thursday and an accompanying article in the journal Science, gave the answer: No, the discovery does not prove the existence of a so-called "second genesis" on Earth. But the discovery very much opens the door to that possibility, and to the related existence of a theorized "shadow biosphere" on Earth--life evolved from a different common ancestor than all that we've known so far.

  • by Guppy ( 12314 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @02:42PM (#34420798)

    From the New York Times Summary:

    Scientists said Thursday that they had trained a bacterium to eat and grow on a diet of arsenic, in place of phosphorus

    It seems that this organisms was adapted in the lab to substitute Arsenic for Phosphorous, and is not a naturally Arsenic-based lifeform -- and that it will still preferrentially use phosphorous when allowed any.

  • by brit74 ( 831798 ) on Thursday December 02, 2010 @03:55PM (#34421760)
    This isn't a new form of life, as some (including the Slashdot title) have suggested. This is a form of life that can use phosphorus or arsenic in it's DNA and RNA backbone. It evolved from a common type of bacteria that uses only phosphorus. Quotes:

    NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

    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 GFAJ-1 strain of the Halomonadaceae grew when arsenic was in the water and when phosphorus was in the water, but not when both were taken away.

    "This organism has dual capability," Paul Davies of NASA and Arizona State said in a statement.

    "It can grow with either phosphorous or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly 'alien' life belonging to a different tree of life with a separate origin."

    But it does suggest that astrobiologists looking for life on other planets do not need to look only for planets with the same balance of elements as Earth has.

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