The discovery is amazing, but it’s easy to go overboard with it. For example, this breathlessly hyperbolic piece, published last year, suggests that finding such bacteria would be “one of the most significant scientific discoveries of all time”. It would imply that “Mono Lake was home to a form of life biologically distinct from all other known life on Earth” and “strongly suggest that life got started on our planet not once, but at least twice”.This puts it into better perspective. This is big news because it does provide us with a glimpse into some different evolutionary pathways that are unexpected. In a sense, this is like the microbes that can survive in hyperthermophilic environments in that it is just not something that would be expected. Sorry for jumping on the bandwagon. I should have known better.
The results do nothing of the sort. For a start, the bacteria – a strain known as GFAJ-1 – don’t depend on arsenic. They still contain detectable levels of phosphorus in their molecules and they actually grow better on phosphorus if given the chance. It’s just that they might be able to do without this typically essential element – an extreme and impressive ability in itself.
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