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.
5 thoughts on “New Life in Old Planets”
I am vindicated in my belief (since childhood) that it was ridiculous to think that all life had to be carbon based! Imagine the possibilities for life when you let go of that narrow view! I’m so glad this door has finally opened.
Unfortunately, as more information has been revealed, it turns out they didn’t ‘discover’ it, they created it in the lab. And the arsenic isn’t the replacement for carbon, but for phosphorus; everything else is the same. It is still pretty cool!
Also, while it’s true that this is the first time any of the six main building blocks have been replaced by elements with a different number of protons, it’s not the first time they’ve been swapped out with elements with a different number of neutrons. My old summer-job boss used to grow completely deuterated bacteria all the time so that they’d be invisible in an NMR, so he could then watch in the NMR what happened to the hydrogens when he fed them unusual compounds. I’m sure you could do the same thing for carbon-13 or the like, though why you’d want to is an open question.
Alas, the danger of writing a blog post before the actual information is available! I’m still impressed that it swapped arsenic for phosphorous and created a new ATP cycle thereof.
In case you’re interested, Carl Zimmer’s write up:
Ooo, that was an excellent write-up. Thanks for pointing it out to me!
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