A research team funded by the space agency found life built with the toxic chemical arsenic in a California lake.
NASA-funded researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono
Lake in California
announced they have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to
thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic, a discovery NASA
officials said has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all
known life on Earth. According to the space agency, the microorganism
substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components. The research was
published in this week's edition of Science Express.
"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's
associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's
headquarters in Washington.
"As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we
have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know
The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group
of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers
successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on
phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed
the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic, the microbes continued to grow.
Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the
building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.
"We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we've found
is a microbe doing something new-building parts of itself out of arsenic,"
said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology research fellow in residence at
the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif.,
and the research team's lead scientist. "If something here on Earth can do
something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?"
According to information released by NASA, phosphorus is a central component
of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also
the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar
to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic
pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate, an agency
Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA
and RNA, the structures that carry genetic
instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living
cells. Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six
basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. "This finding
of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand
the scope of the search for life beyond Earth," a NASA release stated.
The space agency said the team chose to explore Mono
Lake because of its unusual
chemistry, especially its high salinity, high alkalinity and high levels of
arsenic. This chemistry is in part a result of Mono
Lake's isolation from its sources
of fresh water for 50 years. "The key issue the researchers investigated
was when the microbe was grown on arsenic did the arsenic actually became
incorporated into the organisms' vital biochemical machinery, such as DNA,
proteins and the cell membranes," the NASA report noted. "A variety
of sophisticated laboratory techniques were used to determine where the arsenic
"The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science
fiction," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
at the agency's Ames Research Center, who added the results of this study will
inform ongoing research in many areas, including the study of Earth's
evolution, organic chemistry, biogeochemical cycles, disease mitigation and
Earth system research. "Until now, a life form using arsenic as a building
block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono
Nathan Eddy is Associate Editor, Midmarket, at eWEEK.com. Before joining eWEEK.com, Nate was a writer with ChannelWeb and he served as an editor at FierceMarkets. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.