Thursday, December 02, 2010

arsenic and old life

a few days ago, there was a bit of buzz when NASA scheduled a press conference to make some big announcement. what followed was a bunch of speculation that NASA had discovered life somewhere other than earth, and that speculation seemed to focus on saturn's moon titan.

today is press conference day and although the conference isn't until this afternoon, the announcement has leaked. it is about a new life-form, but not an extraterrestrial one:
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.

But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in the poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible. While she and other scientists theorized that this could be possible, this is the first discovery. The implications of this discovery are enormous to our understanding of life itself and the possibility of finding beings in other planets that don't have to be like planet Earth.
not quite as sexy as life on another planet. but i imagine this is very exciting to biologists.

so why is NASA making this announcement? i would think that this would be something a university would do, or maybe an organization like this one. i didn't realize that NASA's jurisdiction includes earth-bound biological advances. sure, an implication of the discovery is that alien life might be more likely (as we have now found a new combo of chemicals that would work), but that doesn't explain why NASA was in on it on the ground floor.

ADDING: memeorandum linked to this post (and called this blog an unpronounceable symbol again). from that link i discovered that a few other bloggers used essentially the same pun as me for the title of their post. zander vs. stupid has the best version. dammit, i wish i had thought of "lakes." that's really much better.