NASA announced an exciting discovery today at NASA TV. I wasn’t able to watch the entire thing, but it was amazing. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, an Astrobiology research fellow at Menlo Park, shared her findings about a microbe called GFAJ-1 in the family of Gammaproteobacteria. This microbe is able to live in a phosphorous-free environment by substituting arsenic for phosphorous within its biological systems, even within the backbone of its DNA. Never before have we seen an organism capable of living without one of the six primary elements of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur).
Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s team discovered this bacteria living in Mono Lake, California, but its remarkable abilities really force us to re-evaluate our study and search for life both on our planet and within the greater universe. As a huge fan of both science and science fiction, I’ve always felt it was somewhat naïve for us to assume that life would only arise under the exact conditions that we ourselves find comfortable. I expect that as our ability to explore outer planets improves, we will discover many more surprises where living things evolve to thrive in wildly exotic environments. Studying the far reaches of our own planet such as deep-sea lava vents and toxic saline lakes will help us revise our definitions and understanding of what life can be, and I am looking forward to many more great discoveries to come.
You can read NASA’s official press release here: