NASA Found A New Form of Life

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12.02.10 3 Comments

As we mentioned found a new form of life in the alkaline, poisonous water Mono Lake, California. The bacteria, GFAJ-1, is not only able to coexist with arsenic, but it can also use the poisonous element as a nearly complete substitute for phosphorus, a feat no other known life form does to this extent.

Life like us uses a handful of basic elements in the majority of its biochemistry: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen for the most part. But phosphorus is also a critical element in two major ways: it’s used as the backbone of the long, spiral-shaped DNA and RNA molecules (think of it as the winding support structure for a spiral staircase and you’ll get the picture), and it’s part of the energy transport mechanism for cells in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Without it, our cells would literally not be able to reproduce, and we’d be dead anyway if it were gone. There are many other ways phosphorus is used as well, including in cell membranes, bones, and so on. It’s a key element for all forms of life. [BadAstronomy]

All forms of life except this new one. Some life forms can use a very small amount of arsenic as a phosphorus substitute (arsenic is directly below phosphorus on the periodic table and shares some chemical properties after all), but nothing else has used arsenic as extensively as GFAJ-1.  This opens up the possibility of life on planets we would previously assume couldn’t sustain life.

Oceanographer Felisa Wolfe-Simon found that the bacterium could thrive with its cells full of arsenic and only trace amounts of phosphorus, or with its cells full of phosphorus and only trace amounts of arsenic. But there’s one thing that is perhaps the most amazing about GFAJ-1 (I’m sick of typing that, I’m calling it G-FAbulous). G-FAbulous incorporated arsenic into its DNA. What a badass.

It should be noted that G-FAbz fared better in a phosphorus-rich environment than it did in arsenic, which you should totally throw in his face if he ever starts bragging about how he metabolizes arsenic better than you.

[Sources: BadAstronomy, Gizmodo, NotExactlyRocketScience]

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When not writing for Uproxx, Caleb likes to volunteer at the legless cat shelter and photoshop the Babadook into all of his family photos. He once resolved the question “To be or not to be?” through the clever use of General Semantics. Your mom thinks you could be more like him if you only applied yourself.

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