A Moment of Science

NASA Discovers New Life Form

A new discovery suggests that living organisms may exist in places that scientists never before dreamed possible.

mono_lake

Photo: Gary Hayes

This otherworldly landscape is Mono Lake, California, the site of NASA's research on arsenic-based life forms.

Basic science used to tell us that arsenic and lifeforms simply do not mix. Well, NASA’s new research has not only proved this statement wrong, but is expanding the definition of life as we know it!

In the harsh depths of California’s Mono Lake, researchers have discovered the first microorganism that uses the toxic chemical, arsenic, to survive and reproduce. It is a microbe called GFAJ-1, a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria.

Recipe For Life

To truly understand the shock that these scientists must have felt, we need to look at the basic chemistry of life. There are six basic building blocks for all known lifeforms on Earth. These are: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Arsenic did not make it on the list.

So how is this new microorganism able to exist?

Breaking The Rules Of Biochemistry

Scientists discovered that the microorganism is able to use arsenic as a substitute for phosphorus. Think of a baker using margarine instead of butter. They are two completely different things, performing the same function and getting virtually the same results.

In most lifeforms, phosphorus is an essential chemical component in the DNA and RNA of living cells. And for most lifeforms, substituting arsenic for phosphorus is a death sentence.

But not for GFAJ-1. When scientists replaced phosphorus with arsenic, not only was the microbe able to function, but arsenic became the new building block for reproducing cells.

If scientists are now proving the impossible, what else will they discover about life in the universe?

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Molly Plunkett

is a journalism student at Indiana University and an online producer for A Moment of Science. She is originally from Wheaton, IL.

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