This is REALLY cool!

Arsenic is a poison because it is chemically similar to phosphorus which is essential to all life forms. Researchers have discovered (in arsenic-rich Mono Lake) a bacterium that can use arsenic and phosphorus interchangeably, so that when it is given a diet of arsenic it can do without phosphorus entirely — even its DNA and ATP, which are as fundamental as life gets, use arsenic instead (so technically it is ATA instead of ATP).

NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

This is said to have implications for alien life on other planets, but it suggests to me that there may be microscopic “alien” life forms already here on earth which we have never recognized because they have different chemical signatures.

UPDATE: Here is the full research paper.

Next question: the other essential elements for life are hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur. The first 4 are obviously unique, but sulfur’s role in proteins (it allows amino acids to cross-link thus creating tertiary structure) can be replaced by selenium in some cases. Could there be life forms that can substitute selenium for all their sulfur?


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7 Responses to This is REALLY cool!

  1. Gorbachev says:

    Now THIS is genuinely interesting.

    I’ve often suspected that there are “alien” lifeforms already here, and there could be several sources.

    – Life has used many models from its inception on Earth: the existence of mitochondria, and chloroplasts suggests that early life was far more diverse in basic fundamentals than we can possibly believe. Also, archaea illustrate that even the Earth can house radically different organisms. They’re fascinating. And they may need to be split into different groups – in many ways, “archaea” is a negative category, a wastebasket kingdom into which we dump the unclassifiable.

    Some, part of or all of these life forms may have come from space. There may have been different seedings. It’s entirely possible that life originated on Earth, and this was the Archaea, and other lifeforms supplanted them, having originated in space. Maybe it was the other way around.

    The “red rain” in India a decade ago seemed to be a lifeform, but it quickly degenerated or ceased to metabolize. It might have been life, but if it was, it was utterly different from anything we would call life.

    If there’s life in space, and it seems reasonable to presume that there’s life everywhere, then certainly it’s possible that some aspect of life on Earth isn’t from here. Maybe all of it. Maybe just some of it.

    Of course, using arsenic might just be a home-grown response to different environmental conditions.

    The the possibilities and the room for speculation is tantalizing.

  2. Gorbachev says:

    Of course, life has replaced itself on Earth so many times, even in terms of basic chemistry, that it’s hard to know what’s original and what’s not.

  3. AJay says:

    With such incredible adventures awaiting us in space, it is disgusting that with trillions in deficits, BO has gutted NASA at a time that rivals such as Russia and China are expanding their efforts in research and space exploration. We are steadily degenerating into a Turd World country. Space and science research are investments in the future. We kill off that investment at our peril. As an active Alcor member, I am personally interested in seeing a brighter future for Western Civilization than Barak Hussein Obama seems to have as part of his agenda.

  4. Gorbachev says:

    You know, we made mistakes by sending people. We can make cheap probes and collect all kinds of information.

    WHat we *should* be doing is working on biosphere technology, or getting partners like the UK or Japan or Canada to do the same. These countries are very, very keen, and don’t mind coughing up the money for it. I saw one project in Canada: a biosphere biology research program to develop life that could tolerate a wide variety of environments, maybe even waterless cold irradiated Mars. Not exciting plants, mind you, but plants.

    Japan was developing gene-sequencing machines but needed a purpose and goal for them: how about as a first step to engineering terraforming organisms for solar worls, like mars?

    Why not think about carbon-sinking Venus’ atmosphere? We could do it in 1000 years with a few Von Neumann machines designed to separate out the carbon in the atmosphere. We could design them and have this operational in a couple of decades. We could put low-orbit atmospheric cities in orbit, stations, at least.


    Exploration. Give us a purpose. We love that kind of thing. We don’t need to spend billions of billions, either. Japan gets massive bang for its buck with mini projects; the same goes for Canadian research. They need a co-ordinator and leader. Some reason and a goal to work together. Towards a common purpose.

    Should be us.

  5. Polymath says:

    The American Humanist Association misinterprets this story, and the Vatican’s astronomer gets it right:

    Does a New Life Form Mean God Is Dead?

    It’s funny to compare the closed-mindedness and bigotry of the “humanist” Niose with the breadth and objectivity of the Jesuit monk Consolmagno.

  6. Polymath says:

    Uh-oh, the story may have been premature:
    Backing off an arsenic-eating claim

  7. Polymath says:

    Even though this arsenic-based life claim is now looking dubious, NASA scientists are still announcing sensational results:

    NASA Scientist Claims Evidence of Alien Life on Meteorite

    Count me skeptical on this one, it seems to me to be even less well-supported than the earlier story (which was quite plausible given the specific facts asserted, though those assertions turned out to be exaggerated).

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