Thursday, December 02, 2010

Alien Life Discovered

Well, this will rewrite a few books. Gizmodo is reporting that NASA is about to release findings of a new bacteria that was discovered at Mono Lake in California. They write:
NASA has discovered a new life form—called GFAJ-1—that doesn't share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth. It's capable of using arsenic to build its DNA, RNA, proteins, and cell membranes. This changes everything. Updated.

NASA is saying that this is "life as we do not know it". The reason is that all life on Earth is made of six components: Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same.

In a surprising discovery, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe Simon and her team have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the newly discovered microorganism—called GFAJ-1 and found in Mono Lake, California—uses the poisonous arsenic for its building blocks.
This is huge. It is alien life that either developed in isolation from the rest of life on this planet for the last 3.8 BILLION years (unlikely) or it is literally alien in origin. Here is the NASA story by Dwayne Browne and Cathy Weselby. They write:
"The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Until now a life form using arsenic as a building block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono Lake."
We will see how this gets picked up by different organizations in the next few weeks. It has amazing implications for exobiology.

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  1. I encourage you to check your sources on this story. It is not likely that this organism developed in isolation from the rest of life on the planet or that it is literally alien in origin. In fact, it is DNA based and only dissimilar from the rest of DNA based life in one critical aspect: it has evolved the ability to use arsenic in place of chemically similar phosphorus in some molecular features which possibly (there is criticism of this result) includes in its DNA molecules.

    This is a very big and very weird story - and it is important for astrobiology since it potentially widens the scope of life-friendly exo-planetary environments. But this organism descended from the same sources as the rest of life on earth.

  2. WebMonk4:19 PM

    Jimp, I'm a bit puzzled.

    This is huge. It is alien life that either developed in isolation from the rest of life on this planet for the last 3.8 BILLION years (unlikely) or it is literally alien in origin.

    Here I thought this was a bacteria of a common family of bacteria that had adapted to use arsenic instead of phosphorus.

    Very cool, but nothing at all like what you're claiming.

  3. Jim, you will find much better summaries of this work at the New York Times and (of course) at Todd Wood's blog. The Gizmodo guy got every important point wrong; his update is only slightly better than the hilariously bad original.

  4. I heard a rumor that the oil-eating bacteria from the gulf share in the arsenic backbone?

  5. The Science article says it's a strain "GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae"; it's not alien life, but it is _incredible_ news.

    BTW, this means a creationist, Todd Wood, scooped you. ;-)

  6. It's cool, but it's neither alien nor completely different...IOW, hype:

  7. I watched the NASA online press conference today and was very much impressed. While I don't think it's quite the ET breakthrough many had hoped for, it's still a huge advance in biological understanding. It expands our understanding of what constitutes "life" dramatically.

  8. Bro, this has TREMENDOUS implications. More than one origin of life on earth? My mind is blown. Is it even possible to fit these guys on our tree? I need to read more on this.