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GFAJ-1 is a very special bacteria. It can live without phosphorus, replacing it with arsenic.  (Source: Science/AACS)

The bacteria was found in an arsenic-rich lake in California.  (Source: Science/AACS)
Lifeform can ditch phosphorus, an "essential" nutrient, and use arsenic instead

In a special press conference on Thursday, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced the discovery of a radically different lifeform that could survive on hostile alien environment.

To date all known living organisms required phosphorus to survive.  Phosphorus forms the backbone of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), forms the essential energy storage molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and provides other functions in organic chemistry.  Indeed phosphorus is one of six "essential" elements -- oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorus -- that all organism are thought to share.

A remarkable new strand of bacteria in the proteobacteria family Halomonadaceae, dubbed GFAJ-1 has been discovered in Mono Lake, California.  The microorganism has the ability to use arsenic in the place of phosphorus, thriving in environments with lots of arsenic, but little to no phosphorus -- like Mono Lake.

Nicknamed "Strangia Phagia I" by the researchers, the bacteria has no known equivalents on Earth.  It marks the latest example of bacteria thriving in a hostile environment -- past discoveries include bacteria that grow in anaerobic (oxygen-lacking) environments, extreme heat, acidic environments, or salty ones.

The finding raises hope for astrobiologists, in that it shows that life could arise on alien worlds even if they lacked the exact same chemical composition of the Earth.  Felisa Wolfe-Simon of NASA's Astrobiology Institute and the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California comments, "Life as we know it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine."

Paul Davies of Arizona State University in Tempe adds, "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."

He suggests that life may exist in the Earth's fiery hot mantle, outer atmosphere, or dry deserts.  He also speculates, "It could also be that this 'weird life' is all around us, intermingled with carbon-based life. If so, it's going to be hard to detect, as we would have to find a way to first filter everything out."

The study on the work is published (abstract here) in the AACS journal Science.

The results may be a bit disappointing to those hoping that the announcement would be a true alien lifeform.  However, they offer further validation of that infamous Michael Crichton quote from Jurassic Park, "Life will find a way."

Combined with recent laboratory discoveries that prove evolution can add new biochemical and physiological functionality to organisms, it seems hard to believe that sooner or later we won't find life that evolved on an alien world.  When found, that life may seem strange from a biochemical standpoint -- but then again, so are many lifeforms on Earth, like GFAJ-1.




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