Arsenic-munching germ redefines "life as we know it"

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.Chris

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A strange, salty lake in California has yielded an equally strange bacterium that thrives on arsenic and redefines life as we know it, researchers reported on Thursday.

The bacteria do not merely eat arsenic -- they incorporate the toxic element directly into their DNA, the researchers said.

The finding shows just how little scientists know about the variety of life forms on Earth, and may greatly expand where they should be looking for life on other planets and moons, the NASA-funded team said.

"We have cracked open the door to what is possible for life elsewhere in the universe," Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and U.S. Geological Survey, who led the study, told a news conference.

The study, published in the journal Science, demonstrates that one of the most notorious poisons on Earth can also be the very stuff of life for some creatures.

Wolfe-Simon and colleagues found the strain of Halomonadaceae in California's Mono Lake, formed in a volcanic region and very dense in minerals, including arsenic.

The lake is teeming with life, but not fish. It also contains the bacteria.

"Life is mostly composed of the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus," the researchers write in Science.

These six elements make up the nucleic acids -- the A, C, T and G of DNA -- as well as proteins and lipids. But there is no reason in theory why other elements should not be used. It is just that science never found anything alive that used them.

The researchers grew microbes from the lake in water loaded with arsenic, and only containing a little bit of phosphorus.

SCIENTISTS AMAZED

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. And it grew even with "double whammy" of arsenic.

"It grew and it thrived and that was amazing. Nothing should have grown," Wolfe-Simon told a news 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."

Paul Davies of NASA and Arizona State said the bacterium is not a new life form.

"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," he said.

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.

"Our findings are a reminder that life-as-we-know-it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine," said Wolfe-Simon.

"If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet? Now is the time to find out."

James Elser, an expert on phosphorus at Arizona State University, said such bacteria may be useful for generating new biofuels that do not requite phosphate fertilizers, treating wastewater or cleaning up toxic waste sites.
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Ritsuki

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It's fun how can scientific discovery like that can be less important than Britney Spears's last haircut when you can't understand them... Maybe they sould explain a little bit why a such discovery is amazing and important.
 

Law

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Ritsuki said:
It's fun how can scientific discovery like that can be less important than Britney Spears's last haircut when you can't understand them... Maybe they sould explain a little bit why a such discovery is amazing and important.

You don't have to be a scientist to understand science, but it helps.
 

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SifJar said:
It wasn't really that big a deal if you ask me. For those who didn't hear/understand, here's the basics of it:

A chemical called "phosphorus" is found in DNA and RNA (RNA is involved in making proteins). Both DNA and RNA are essential to life, hence it was assumed so was phosphorus.

But somebody found a bacteria in a lake (on Earth, note) that had the poison Arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus. Meaning that on planets without phosphorus, it may be possible that there is life, with arsenic (or potentially i guess a different phosphorus substitute) in the DNA.

Phosphorus is also involved in photosynthesis, i.e. it is also essential to plants.

And while this may mean that there is a chance of life in less hospitable environments than Earth, it's not a huge deal IMO. For all we know, if there were life out there, it may not even have DNA etc. Just because that's how things are on Earth doesn't mean it'd have to be the same elsewhere.

Anyway, I think there are far better things money could be spent on than space exploration and searching for extraterrestrial life. I mean, I love science as much as the next guy, but when there are people starving and dying of horrible diseases, why should we be wasting money sending big chunks of metal into space? Priorities need sorted if you ask me.
SifJar's post from the NASA Announcement thread.....
 

SifJar

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Ha, I was just about to post and explain it again here, now I don't need to. If you still can't understand, ask and I'll try to clarify some stuff. I think what I said is basically right, perhaps missing a finer detail or two...

EDIT: Thought I'd add something more: This also highlight's the lack of knowledge scientist's have. Till this discovery, they thought that phosphorus was essential to life, now they know it isn't. Basically, this just shows that not all lifeforms are as scientists expected, which in effect "opens the boundaries" a bit as to where life could occur. The fact that this variation is possible indicates that others could also be possible.
 

Ritsuki

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Law said:
Ritsuki said:
It's fun how can scientific discovery like that can be less important than Britney Spears's last haircut when you can't understand them... Maybe they sould explain a little bit why a such discovery is amazing and important.

You don't have to be a scientist to understand science, but it helps.

No, but if you need to have some notion of biology, a bit of chemistry to fully understand it. But like SifJar said, it's not a ground-breaking discovery, but still, it's impressing and very interesting.
 
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