New Building Block For Alien Life Discovered
Update Mar-02-2015: It turns out that the paper on which this article was based has been disproved.
"Contrary to an original report, the new research clearly shows that the bacterium, GFAJ-1, cannot substitute arsenic for phosphorus to survive," said a statement by the US journal Science, a prestigious, peer-reviewed magazine.
Science published Sunday the much-hyped initial study in December 2010, with lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon, then a fellow in NASA's astrobiology program, announcing that a new form of life had been scooped from a California lake.
Thanks to @RocketAcademy for pointing this out and supplying references. End update.
The essential building blocks of life are well known; carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. The absence of any one of these elements would preclude the existence of life as we know it occurring elsewhere in the universe.
Research conducted by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, Gwyneth Gordon, Ariel Anbar and Paul Davies appears to demonstrate that an earthly bacterium can take arsenic and substitute it for phosphorus in its DNA and other biomolecules when forced to do so.
The research centers around a bacterium; strain GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae family of Gammaproteobacteria, which was taken from the sediments of Mono Lake, which has naturally high levels of arsenic. By culturing the bacterium in the lab without phosphorus, and a suitable concentration of arsenic, the bacterium was observed to grow in spite of the lack of one of the "necessary" building blocks - phosphorus. Subsequent analysis proved that the organism substituted arsenic both in DNA and other needed biomolecules.
I recall speculation about life-forms based on something other than the usual elements from my childhood. In the 1967 Star Trek episode The Devil in the Dark, something is wreaking havoc at a mining facility, but the Enterprise's life sensors cannot detect any life forms.
(Mr. Spock: 'What if life exists based on another element?')
Spock: "Life as we know it is universally based on some combination of carbon compounds... But what if life exists based on another element? For instance - silicon."
McCoy: "You're creating fantasies, Mr. Spock.
Kirk: "Not necessarily, Bones. I've heard the theoretical possibility of life based on silicon. But silicon-based life would be of an entirely different order.
It turns out that the problem is an animal - the Horta is a creature whose metabolism is based on silicon - living rock.
(Silicon-based lifeform - the Horta)
This discovery can only increase the chances that life can be found elsewhere in the universe. Read about how red dwarf star systems may harbor life, which also expands the places we can look for life.
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