In the “this will seriously blow your mind” category, NASA has announced a discovery that has shaken the entire scientific community’s understanding of life as we know it. In addition to all life being carbon based, it was generally accepted that all life needed oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus in order to survive – until now. A team of NASA scientists studying bacteria in Mono Lake in California have discovered a microorganism that substitutes arsenic — a chemical that is toxic to almost all living organisms — for all parts of a cell that in every other life form are built from phosphate. Not only has this discovery made it necessary to re-edit every science textbook in use, but researchers say it could revolutionize green energy and toxic waste cleanup.
In most living things, phosphorous performs three important functions: it makes up the structures that hold DNA and RNA together, it’s a central component of adenosine triphosphate (the energy carrying molecule in cells), and it makes up the phospholipids that form all cell walls. This newly discovered microorganism — which NASA has lovingly named GFAJ-1 — has made phosphate obsolete for itself by using arsenic instead. Though phosphate and arsenic are very similar in chemical makeup, it was previously thought it was improbable for the substitution to take place because of arsenic’s toxicity to most living things. “We’ve cracked open the door for what’s possible for life in the universe. And that’s profound,” said Felisa Wolfe Simon, the lead NASA scientists on the discovery team. “What else might we find? What else might we want to look for?”
The researchers chose Mono Lake in California as a base because of its odd chemical makeup. The lake has high salinity, high alkalinity, and high levels of arsenic and little or no phosphate, but it was known that life thrived there. Wolfe Simon’s team grabbed a heap of arsenic-rich mud and got to studying. They isolated and grew the microbes they found in a laboratory and when they removed phosphate from their growing environment and pumped it full of arsenic the microbes continued to grow and thrive. After studying the building blocks of the microbes, they made their astounding discovery. The microbes had evolved to build their basic structures from arsenic leaving the role of phosphate behind.
In addition to this Mono Lake discovery changing the basic understanding of life — oh, you know, no big deal — some scientists say that this outstanding finding could mean great things for the advancement of green technology. First off, because this microbe literally builds itself out of arsenic, it could be a key element in cleaning up arsenic laden toxic waste areas. Just throw a bunch of the tiny organisms into the mess and they’ll eat up all of the arsenic. The other key discovery has to do with revolutionizing green energy.
Phosphorus has been integral to the formation of fertilizers and is part of the reason that ethanol — which is heavily built on phosphorus — is currently being phased out as a source of alternative energy. It takes a ton of phosphorous to grow crops that will yield ethanol and phosphorus is becoming scarcer by the minute. We’ve got a ton of arsenic lying around — that most of us don’t want anywhere near us — so researchers are expected to get to work trying to figure out if an arsenic-based ethanol could be created. In addition to the possible arsenic-based ethanol being a good alternative fuel, as a crop it is attractive because its unique chemical building blocks would make it unattractive to outside pests — read: no pesticides or fungicides needed.