Life As We’ve Never Known It Before

Mono Lake, California

Mono Lake, California (Photo Credit: Michael Gäbler)

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:



Donate Your Brain to Science Today!

Donate Your Brain

As amazing as computers are, there are some things they can’t do as well as human minds. Visual processing and pattern recognition happen so quickly and on such an unconscious level for us that it’s practically a superpower, and it can take years to teach a computer how to even begin narrowing down false-positive matches and the like. Our scientific computer-driven tools are burying us in data that could take generations to sift through for useful discoveries. With all that in mind, I love seeing how today’s scientists are teaming up with game designers to crowd-source research to those of us with free time to give.

I’ve participated in distributed computing projects like SETI@home and BOINC off and on for years, donating processing power from my home computer to crunch data-sets for all kinds of projects and research. As satisfying as that is, it is a very impersonal kind of donation. All you need to do is install some software, choose the projects and let it run. I know my donations were valuable, but I didn’t feel very involved. The newer generation of ‘Citizen Science’ projects are putting the data into volunteer’s hands in a more direct and exciting way.

Click below to read my reviews of three Citizen Science sites I enjoy!

Continue reading