NASA Researchers Find Microbes That Thrive On Arsenic


Mono Lake, California

So, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) wowed us with their highly anticipated press conference labelled as an explanation of an Astrobiology Discovery.  This, supported by what we’re supposed to believe was an unintentional leak of the information to a few strategic sources, was actually much less about astrobiology than it was about biology in general.

The NASA press conference, which was scheduled for 2pm (EST) today (December 2, 2010), was little more than a panelled monologue by a few desperate public scientists, standing before the world saying: “Hey, look at us, we’re still scientifically relevant.  We’re still productive and valuable to the international scientific discourse…please, please don’t cut off our funding and put an end to our potential!”

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression though; their discovery is profound, and poignant. In lay-terms, they found (or rather, created) a microbial organism, specifically a bacterium that is capable, it seems, of substituting arsenic for phosphorus in it’s genetic structure.

If you’re not well versed in bio-chemistry and molecular biology, this will hold little meaning for you.  Even if you are conversant in these fields, this discovery, while interesting, seems almost inevitable.  There is a bit of PR sleight of hand going on here though, and I’ll do my best to illustrate the trick.


Microscopic Bacterium Using Arsenic in place of Phosphorus

This discovery is credited to Arizona State University Researcher Ariel Anbar and her team, who recently studied bacterial microbes harvested from Mono Lake in northern California, an area environmentally rich in arsenic.[1] Anbar and her team then grew these bacteria in laboratory settings, manipulating the levels of biological building blocks (specifically limiting the amount of phosphorus available to the culture, while adding what should have been a fatal dose of arsenic).  They ultimately found that the bacteria not only thrived in this environment, but that it had actually replaced the phosphorus in its DNA and RNA material with that of arsenic (a molecularly similar element to phosphorus).

You might be thinking…”Yeah?  So what?”  And you’d be more on the ball than you think.  What this discovery means is that Anbar and her team succeeded in confirming a hypothesis that, contrary to NASA’s PR machine, was actually fairly widely held throughout the biological sciences community, not to mention a notion that has been the foundation of the astrobiology “sciences” for decades.  That notion being, that life elsewhere, life on planets other than Earth, need not conform to the biological requirements of life on Earth.  Though personally, I fail to see how this discovery is any more relevant than the discovery of water on both the Moon and Mars.

I suspect that many lay-people will be somewhat disappointed with the results of all this fan fare, and I can’t say I’d blame them.  I had the misfortune of watching the press conference on CNN, wherein the host-of-the-hour, who seems to lack a basic understanding of science in any venue, was far less than charitable with the presentation than I would have expected, openly mocking Andar following the initial release, then handing over commentary to Bill Nye (The Science Guy) and a SETI Researcher, whom the CNN host claims (erroneously) was Carl Sagan’s inspiration for the screenplay for the movie Contact, staring Jodie Foster.

All-in-all, as I said earlier, this is a profound discovery, though twitter, facebook and many, many internet message boards will certainly now be a-buzz with chatter on the deeper, hidden meaning of this discovery.  Those meanings however, are bound to be fewer and far subtler than these conspiracy theorists will be willing to admit.  I reported mid last year on the discovery of water on the Moon by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandraayan 1 probe, and then by subsequent NASA missions.  I exclaimed, without answer, about the media’s apparent lack of interest in such a profound discovery…apparently this press conference is an answer to that claim.  (As though NASA gives a damn what some obscure blogger says)

Either way, stay tuned for commentary and analysis by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the significance of this discovery, whether they actually understand it or not.

[1] NASA Funded Research Discovers Life Built with Toxic Chemical, NASA.gov

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