NASA finding not the end of the world as we know it, but a different one

NASA funded research finds arsenic-loving bug

nasa's arsenic bug
NASA today said a team of its researchers has discovered a bacteria that can live and reproduce mostly using highly toxic arsenic rather than one of the basic building blocks of life, phosphorus (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the others in case you forgot your biology).

The finding could prompt scientists to rethink what their definition of "life" could be on Earth but also on what planets could be "habitable" in the solar system.

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It could also play a big part in future bio-energy development and could emerge as an alternative to using phosphorus in fertilizer user and wastewater treatment.

"We feel that we have cracked open the door to what life is possible in the rest of the universe.  If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?" said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology research fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey in and the research team's lead scientist at a press conference. "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."

Specifically, the newly discovered microbe is known as GFAJ-1 is part  of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria.

The researchers began looking for the bacteria in mud gathered from Mono Lake in California, a harsh environment that has a high salinity, high alkalinity, and high levels of arsenic. This chemistry is in part a result of Mono Lake's isolation from its sources of fresh water for 50 years, the researchers stated.

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 researchers stated.

Not everyone was quick to put the finding in the astrobiology hall of fame just yet though. Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow with the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution said the finding was no doubt exceptional but that arsenic can be a demon wolf in sheep's clothing.   A lot more testing needs to be done to see if this finding holds up, he stated. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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