bacterium that can not only withstand but thrive on arsenic has been
discovered by NASA
scientists at the bottom of a Californian volcanic lake. That the
bacteria can live on such a toxic substance gives scientists hope that
they could discover life in seemingly hostile environments--even on
other planets--in forms that they now can't even conceive of, The New
York Times' Dennis Overbye reports.
Arsenic is poisonous because it mimics one
of the six crucial chemicals we need to live--phosphorus. These
bacteria, though, "gradually swapped out atoms of phosphorus in its little body
for atoms of arsenic" as the scientists increased the concentration of
the poison in the lab, Overbye writes. A scientist who studies the
origins of life explains: "Nature only uses a restrictive set of
molecules and chemical reactions out of many thousands available. This
is our first glimmer that maybe there are other options." Another raved: "It's like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after
being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat." As Oberbye explains, "until now there has been no substitute for the basic six elements" which sustain life. Now, though, chemical replacements once the province of science fiction seem a little more possible.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.