NASA and old lace

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic. (Image NASA)

I managed to catch the tail end of the NASA press conference this morning. This  had created quite a flutter on the internet with some speculating that NASA was going to announce the discovery of evidence for extraterrestrial life.

Well, it proved to be a bit more realistic than that – but nevertheless quite exciting. The press conference discussed research indicating the possibility that arsenic can substitute for phosphorus  in a bacteria. Neil deGrasse Tyson explained this in a brief tweet:

“Like Carbon & Silicon in Periodic Table, Phosphorus & Arsenic sit above &b elow one another, making them kindred souls of chemistry.”

Researchers present their findings in the paper A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus.” It has the usual laundry list of authors (12) we have come to expect for significant work. The lead author is Felisa Wolfe-Simon. And here is the abstract:

Life is mostly composed of the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus. Although these six elements make up nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids and thus the bulk of living matter, it is theoretically possible that some other elements in the periodic table could serve the same functions. Here, we describe a bacterium, strain GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae, isolated from Mono Lake, California, which substitutes arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth. Our data show evidence for arsenate in macromolecules that normally contain phosphate, most notably nucleic acids and proteins. Exchange of one of the major bioelements may have profound evolutionary and geochemical significance.

And here is a short video on the work:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
NASA’s Alien Life News: The Real Story from Sci…, posted with vodpod

The scientists at the press conference disagreed on the actual role of the arsenic and how stable such life forms could be. Clearly more work will be done on this and Wolfe-Simon is publishing further results in February.

This is way out of my area of expertise so I won’t comment further on the research. But I was interested to here the scientists and reporters discuss the feelings that often come with significant discoveries. Ryan Anderson from The Martian Chronicles expressed my thoughts exactly with his comment:

I thought it was great to hear Wolfe-Simon say during the question session that there wasn’t a “eureka moment” where they knew what they had found, it was more like “Hey, this isn’t right.” It reminds me of this Isaac Asimov quote:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I’ve found it!), but ‘That’s funny…’ -Isaac Asimov.

See also:
NASA Scientists Find Microbes With Arsenic DNA
NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical
Of Arsenic and Aliens
Living off Toxic Waste—Bacteria Swap Out Phosphorus for Arsenic

Enhanced by Zemanta

3 responses to “NASA and old lace

  1. Richard Christie

    I wonder what the Pope thinks about this.

    Like

  2. I wonder what the Pope thinks about this.

    You’re cruel, you are!
    (giggle)
    Yet at least it would have fitted on the Ark.
    😉

    Astrobiology is nine different kinds of awesome.
    Once hydothermals came onto the scene, I was hooked.
    Battery acid, extreme heat, extreme pressure and now arsenic of all things.
    If life can exist in such insane conditions then it can survive anywhere which, of course, is why NASA is so very interested.

    Hydrothermal Vents – David Attenborough

    Like

  3. The Catholic Church, perhaps surprisingly, is also somewhat open to the idea of life on other planets, with the current head of the Vatican observatory, José Gabriel Funes, conceding the possibility of extra-terrestrial life just last May.

    He told the Holy See’s in-house rag: “It is possible, even if until now, we have no proof. But certainly in such a big universe this hypothesis cannot be excluded.”

    (here) It’s not the Pope himself, but…

    Like

Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s