Alien Life Forms Found in California

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aliens dwell in California

Wired News is reporting a new study published today in Science in which a bacterium that lives on arsenic has been discovered swimming around in Mono Lake in California. Wired reports:

Hours before their special news conference today, the cat is out of the bag: NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn't share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth. This changes everything.

At their conference today, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe Simon will announce that they have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on Earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same.

Or as the Science press release more sedately explains:

Can you imagine eating toxic waste for breakfast? Researchers have discovered a bacterium that can live and grow entirely off arsenic, reports a new study. The findings point for the first time to a microorganism that is able to use a toxic chemical (rather than the usual phosphate) to sustain growth and life. Arsenic is normally highly toxic to living organisms because it disrupts metabolic pathways, but chemically it behaves in a similar way to phosphate. Scientists have previously found organisms that can chemically alter arsenic; and these organisms have been implicated in ground water poisoning events in Bangladesh and other places in Asia when people have shifted to using borehole or well water to avoid cholera. Now, Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues have found a bacterium able to completely swap arsenic for phosphorus to the extent that it can even incorporate arsenic into its DNA. The salt-loving bacteria, a member Halomonadaceae family of proteobacteria, came from the toxic and briny Mono Lake in California. In the lab, the researchers grew the bacteria in Petri dishes in which phosphate salt was gradually replaced by arsenic, until the bacteria could grow without needing phosphate, an essential building block for various macromolecules present in all cells, including nucleic acids, lipids and proteins. Using radio-tracers, the team closely followed the path of arsenic in the bacteria; from the chemical's uptake to its incorporation into various cellular components. Arsenic had completely replaced phosphate in the molecules of the bacteria, right down its DNA.

Still I don't think that we phosphate-based lifeforms have anything to worry about since we totally dominate the biosphere. Nevertheless, I fear that had researchers actually made this critter, it would probably be banned [PDF].

Update: Just noticed Tim already posted on this.

NEXT: Lavatory of the Gods? NASA Keeps Finding Alien Life Everywhere But Space

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  1. I was disappointed when the full story came out.

    It appears that they FORCED this bug to adapt to more and more arsenic in its environment, and it responded to the experiment by swapping out the phosphorus in its DNA.

    That’s pretty amazing, but less amazing that a bug with arsenic-based DNA naturally.

    The latter would imply that there was a chance that Genesis had happened on Earth twice. That would be a very, very, very big deal for the Drake Equation and for creationism.

    1. I totally agree and had the same reaction. Although, this given that they’ve now shown that phosphorus based life can adapt to arsenic based, means that if they did find purely arsenic based life it would not imply multiple genisi (plural of genesis?).

      That would be a very, very, very big deal for the Drake Equation and for creationism.

      Since creationists don’t believe that we evolved from bacteria, I don’t think any finding would be a big deal for them. It would just be ascribed to the mystery of the ways of the Almighty – nowhere in the bible does it say God (Gawd for some) didn’t create all types of wierd and spectacular life along with man, 7,000 years ago.

      1. multiple genisi (plural of genesis?).

        Geneses. Its origin in English is through Latin, albeit ultimately from the Greek ???????.

        It’s your basic i-stem third declension feminine noun in Latin.

        1. Ex recto?

          1. Heh.

            It’s one of those words that doesn’t seem to have a “standard” English language type plural, presumably because it’s so rare.

            I have absolutely no problem with people using native English plurals for Latinate words, but I do have a problem when people make up incorrect Latin plurals, like the horror is that is “octopi.” Octopodes and octopuses, perfectly fine.

            1. That problem makes me shy away from Latin plurals when I’m not sure.

              Just practicing with ex recto by the way. My knowledge of Latin is mostly ex recto.

              1. Please tell me that means “out the ass.”

                1. Yes. It came out of a thread a few days ago about where the “savings” projection from Obama’s wage-freeze came from. “These figures were calculated ex recto.”

        2. I would assume that the plural of “genesis” is “geneses”, by extrapolation from the plural of “basis” being “bases”.

          Of course, if one more person puts on and educated air and says “process-eze” when he means “processes”, I’ll scream. The singular wasn’t “processis,” people…

    2. not even. did you know that you can Force e coli to use selenium instead of sulfur?

      Did you know that HUMAN beings have the machinery to use selenium instead of sulfur?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selenocysteine

      1. Customer: Selenium?

        Madge: You’re soaking in it.

    3. Yeah, same response, not nearly as cool as I thought. I bug with arsenic-based DNA naturally would have been more amazing. A bug with arsenic-based “something that provide the same purpose as DNA but clearly isnt DNA” would have been even more amazing.

      I was assuming extra-terrestial origination, not two Genesises.

      1. two Geneses, dammit.

        1. Two? I usually buy a six-pack when I get Genesee.

      2. probably isn’t even. I bet we find sequences that derive from known bacteria. Come on. If bacteria can fall into the Berkeley Pit mine and figure out how to survive, why not mono lacke?

      3. That’s effectively the same thing, really.

        The Drake Equation is fucked up because we only have one Genesis event. As soon as we have two, even on the same planet, that means it’s as got to be as common as dirt.

        If life arose independently from non-living matter on Earth twice, it would be absolutely impossible for life to not be all over the place.

        1. As a fan of both SETI and space exploration, I implore you not to refer to the Drake Equation. It is utter, utter, bullshit. Most of the terms are unknown and a few are unknowable. Especially as distribution matters at least as much as frequency for this problem.

        2. The Drake Equation makes no assumptions about the value of the variables — that’s up to the person using it. The probabilities range from 0 to 1, but the equation is valid. The number of genesis events is an assumption, just like many of the other factors.

    4. From my reading, it was integrating arsenic into its processes already mixed in with phosphorus. They just showed that it could live completely without phosphorus.

      Current thinking is that arsenic was more common on the surface in the past than it is at present. Life may have initially evolved to use arsenic and switched over to phosphorus at a later time.

    5. From my reading, it was integrating arsenic into its processes already mixed in with phosphorus. They just showed that it could live completely without phosphorus.

      Current thinking is that arsenic was more common on the surface in the past than it is at present. Life may have initially evolved to use arsenic and switched over to phosphorus at a later time.

    6. Ron Bailey, big hat tip back to you here

    7. You missed the entire point. The arsenic didn’t get there because of something the researchers did, the experiment describes how they proved that it was using arsenic in place of phosphorus.

      This does not argue for a second genesis though – I too was thinking that was implied by the initial rumors. But it is groundshaking in the biological sciences. This is multiple Nobel Prize stuff. Biochemists will be getting awards studying this thing, biologists, chemists… The ability to incorporate arsenate into the phosphate backbone of DNA implies multiple changes to the biochemical synthesis and control pathways. This is not likely to be a simple mutation. Understanding how this bug works will make several careers.

      Also, there are actual practical implications. Thermophiles have revolutionized biology via their heat-stable enzymes – the PCR reaction depends on them. What will an organism tolerant to arsenic do for us?

      The NASA press conference hinted at one potential use. Biomass energy production using blue-green algae has been proposed, but the problem of contamination by undesirable microbes is huge. Well, if you could modify cyanobacteria with genes from this bug, or vice-versa, you’d have a perfect vector for your algae farm. Just put a bunch of arsenic in your grow-tube media and you are contamination free. Nice.

      By the time I’m ready for the nursing home we should be seeing something good from this. Or not… it could be that the initial reports are wrong or exaggerated. That happens too..

  2. So should I call up Mulder to investigate? Or should I just continue to stalk Scully?

  3. “Can you imagine eating toxic waste for breakfast?”

    Isn’t that what those Burger King breakfast ads are suggesting we do?

      1. Trying again, I ? Burger King, you infidel.

  4. Are they in a war with Old Lace-based aliens?

    1. They are clearly pixilated.

  5. So the takeaway news here is that scientists admit they they don’t know everything.

    Which is actually kind of refreshing.

    1. Before global warming, there were no arsenic-based lifeforms. After global warming, there are.

      Q.E.D.

      1. I heard there might have been more of these lifeforms during the Middle Ages.

        1. Denier!

      2. That’s what my initial reaction to the story was. If these bacteria can adapt and live off of (basically) pollution, what’s the big deal about global warming and greenhouse gases?

    2. Since when have “scientists” (pretty broad stroke there) claimed they knew “everything”?

      Every true scientist I’ve ever known (and I’ve known plenty) has spent his or her life gather data, doing research and testing hypotheses to try to answer the questions they have, rather than sitting around patting themselves on the back for having all the answers.

      1. Some scientific disciplines seem to be more prone to admitting what they don’t know than others. It seems to be inversely proportional to how much actual, hands-on experimentation they can do.

        For the record, I will be completing my undergrad degree in earth and space sciences in May, and continuing on for an advanced degree next Fall.

        1. It seems to be inversely proportional to how much actual, hands-on experimentation they can do funds they can get.

        2. I heard an interesting point – a psychiatrist said that in more developed specialties, questioning the procedures was accepted and even welcomed. In psychiatry, where knowledge was far more limited, adherence to the dogma was almost a requirement to pass.

      2. To be a productive scientist at all, you need to assume that you do not know everything. A scientist who knows everything is out of a job.

        1. unless they turn to climate advocacy. zing!

      3. Quit confusing the true scientists with the attention whores getting AGW funding, and saturated fat funding, and . . .

  6. I, for one, welcome our new bacteria overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted blog personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground arenic caves.

    1. “Hail Prokaryotes!”

    2. They use arenic too? This plot spreads wider than I thought.

  7. a bacterium that lives on arsenic

    So they found Phil Spector swimming in Mono Lake – big whoop.

  8. new life forms in CA? Could have told you that in 1969 after walking around SF for an hour.

  9. Arsenic had completely replaced phosphate in the molecules of the bacteria, right down its DNA.

    oh so I am guessing it keeps its Deoxyribose sugar in its DNA backbone…only replaces the phosphate.

    And it looks like it can switch between the two.

    I down grade my “HOLY FUCKING SHIT?!?!” to a simple “Wow”

    1. Yes, since I dissed it above, let me state that this is still a Wow.

    2. What is still cool about it is how the arsenate complex is stabilized. Arsenates have a very short half-life, on the order of minutes.

  10. I’m surprised this wasn’t discovered sooner, because cacodylate buffers are used for some purposes in biochemistry. I forgot what those purposes are, but it surprises me that someone didn’t produce this result earlier by accident or just try it.

  11. Somehow the existance of life based on toxins will be blamed on free market economics.

    1. Or just California…

  12. “Nevertheless, I fear that had researchers actually made this critter, it would probably be banned.”

    As long as the shit don’t make you high, Ron, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.

    1. Except in Europe, of course.

  13. “Alien Life Forms Found in California”

    Yeah, so what’s new? The INS has been useless for decades.

  14. In the lab, the researchers grew the bacteria in Petri dishes in which phosphate salt was gradually replaced by arsenic, until the bacteria could grow without needing phosphate, an essential building block for various macromolecules present in all cells, including nucleic acids, lipids and proteins.

    The way that is phrased implies that these organisms might naturally have some arsenic in their DNA from living in Mono Lake, and that the scientists pushed that as far as possible.

    If so, this article would be even cooler than it already is.

  15. So they discovered a bacteria that can use arsenic in place of phosphorous and not be poisoned in the process and this translates to “ALIEN LIFE FORMS” according to Science Magazine. God damn is scientific reporting terrible.

    1. I think that there were some pre announcement leaks that made it sound cooler than it was.

      It is still pretty interesting, that scientists can secretly switch the bacteria’s normal phosphorus with arsenic, and they don’t seem to tell the difference. But it’s not totally unrelated to life here on Earth.

  16. “Wake me up when they find outer space life in outer space”

    LOL

  17. Are they likely to break Democratic in their voting, or, since they’re in the California interior, Republican?

  18. Oh good grief. So they found an arsenic thriving mini-bug, that really only became arsenic thriving once the coaxed it to do so via an artificial lab process that gave it no choice.

    Yeah, this changes EVERYTHING. Or not.

    File this under ‘revenge of the Nerds, episode 42.

    1. And by that I mean, she found a minor variation on double helix tech. Big whoop, and a pat on the head for the girl that made a periodic table funny out of her name and all that.

      Impress me by isolating and describing something totally radically different – say, like an organism that stores its bio-data via a structure that resembles a multi-chemical buckey-ball, that spins off replication via nodules, or inverting and quartering itself at the molecular level.

      In the lands of Fords, she found a Chevy. Tell us when you find a helicopter.

  19. I misunderstood the headline – I thought it was referring to the California legislature.

  20. Alien Life Forms Found in California

    A truer line has never been uttered.

  21. While this may not be a complete shake-up of our conception of life, it does mean that life can potentially form under conditions we had previously assumed impossible.

  22. …a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth.

    The sentence fragment above seems to contradict this later one:

    …a member [of the] Halomonadaceae family of proteobacteria…

    Far from being an entirely alien life form with a possibly distinct genesis, it’s just a variant (although an unexpected one) of an existing life form that has adapted to an arsenic-rich environment.

  23. Have they tried secretly switching the bacterium’s phosphorus with Folgers Crystals?

  24. discovered a completely new life form

    No they didn’t. Why repeat that stuff?

    until the bacteria could grow without needing phosphate

    That didn’t happen. Why repeat that stuff?

    http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/articles/thriving-on-arsenic/ –>
    http://www.astrobio.net/exclus…..on-arsenic

    “In other words, every experiment Wolfe-Simon performed pointed to the same conclusion: GFAJ-1 can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA. “I really have no idea what another explanation would be,” Wolfe-Simon says.

    But Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL, remains skeptical. If you “replace all the phosphates by arsenates,” in the backbone of DNA, he says, “every bond in that chain is going to hydrolyze [react with water and fall apart] with a half-life on the order of minutes, say 10 minutes.” So “if there is an arsenate equivalent of DNA in that bug, it has to be seriously stabilized” by some as-yet-unknown mechanism.

    Benner suggests that perhaps the trace contaminants in the growth medium Wolf-Simon uses in her lab cultures are sufficient to supply the phosphorus needed for the cells’ DNA.”

  25. researchers grew the bacteria in Petri dishes in which phosphate salt was gradually re

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