New Life in Old Planets

On Monday, NASA issued a press release announcing a news conference today at 2 PM EST on an astrobiology discovery. They gave no further details other than to say that it would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” and that the journal Science had the full paper.

As you can imagine, people’s imaginations went running wild. Jason Kottke, like many others, speculated that NASA had found life on other planets, most likely one of Saturn’s moons. That was shot down by Alexis Madrigal, senior technology editor at The Atlantic.

Last night, NASA Watch announced that NASA had discovered arsenic-based life, and now Gizmodo is claiming the same thing. This is really, really exciting.

The basic building blocks of life, as drilled into me by my grade-school biology teacher, are CHONPS: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. That’s what you find when you crack open most organic molecules, and are at the heart of everyone’s DNA, human or animal. Not the new bacteria found by NASA, though: it’s based on arsenic, a poisonous (to us!) compound. This is something we didn’t know was possible.

It’s not life on another planet, but it is life made out of completely different building blocks than we’re familiar with. If this is true, it’ll give us insight into other possible biochemistries and affect our understanding of biology. In short, it’s a very big deal.