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Mono Lake Microbe Raises Likelihood Of Alien Life

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Formations of tufa rise above the surface of Mono Lake in eastern California. (James Irwin/CBS)

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MONO LAKE (KCBS / CBS 5 / AP) — Contrary to some Internet rumors, NASA has not discovered life forms elsewhere in the universe. But scientists in Menlo Park have discovered a new form of life on Earth. It’s a bacterium found in California’s Mono Lake that can use arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA.

The Mono Lake discovery widens the scope for finding new forms of life on Earth and possibly beyond.

Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in Menlo Park who led the study, said this is significant because they had previously thought that all life had to have phosphorus to exist.

Six major elements have long been considered essential for life carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.

KCBS’ Matt Bigler Reports:

But the researchers found that the bacteria is able to continue to grow after substituting arsenic for phosphorous.

“If there’s an organism on earth doing something different, we’ve cracked open the door to what’s possible for life elsewhere in the universe, and that’s profound,” she said.

Profound because NASA will have to look more broadly for life elsewhere in the solar system.

David DesMarais with the astrobiology department at NASA Ames in Mountain View said they have to consider life forms they haven’t even thought of.

“This is sort of proof that we can really extend our knowledge of what life can do by this line of research,” DesMarais said.

“This organism has dual capability. It can grow with either phosphorous or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly ‘alien’ life,” commented Paul C. W. Davies of Arizona State University, a co-author of the report appearing in Thursday’s online edition of the journal Science.

“It makes you wonder what else is possible,” said Ariel D. Anbar of Arizona State University, a co-author of the report.

The find is important in the search for life beyond Earth because researchers need to be able to recognize life, to know what life looks like, Anbar said.

The study focuses on a microbe found on Earth. However, the announcement of a news conference to discuss it, which did not disclose details of the find, generated widespread speculation on the Internet that the report would disclose the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

The discovery “does show that in other planetary environments organisms might be able to use other elements to drive biochemistry and that the ‘standard’ set of elements we think are absolutely necessary for life might not be so fixed,” commented Charles Cockell, professor at the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, Open University, in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. Cockell was not part of the research team.

“This work is novel because it shows the substitution of one element for another in fundamental biochemistry and biochemical structure,” added Cockell.

It wasn’t a chance discovery.

Wolfe-Simon targeted Mono Lake because it has high arsenic levels.

Arsenic and phosphorous are chemically similar, so she speculated that a microbe exposed to both might be able to substitute one for the other.

“Arsenic is toxic mainly because its chemical behavior is so similar to that of phosphorus. As a result, organisms have a hard time telling these elements apart. But arsenic is different enough that it doesn’t work as well as phosphorus, so it gets in there and sort of gums up the works of our biochemical machinery,” explained Anbar.

The researchers collected the bacteria known as GFAJ-1 and exposed it to increasing concentrations of arsenic, which it was able to adapt to and grow.

The microbe does grow better on phosphorous, but showing that it can live with arsenic instead raises the possibility that a life form using arsenic could occur naturally, either elsewhere on Earth or on another planet or moon where arsenic is more common.

Jamie S. Foster, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Florida, said the idea that arsenic could be substituted for phosphorous isn’t new, but there has never been example where it was shown to work.
Arsenic was more common in the early times on Earth, she said, so researchers have speculated that early life forms might have used it.

“It does suggest that that there could be other ways to form life, not just how life formed on early Earth,” said Foster, who was not part of Wolfe-Simon’s research team.

The research was supported by NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.

(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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