The NASA press conference is now over, and scientists have confirmed what bloggers had leaked earlier: there is “alien” life forming right here on planet Earth. In a dynamic that might be described in a play on words as “arsenic and old lake,” “The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria,” The Huffington Post reports.
HuffPo followed the press conference and was live-blogging details as they were released. According to their feed, NASA researchers determined that the building block of the GFAJ-1 cell is in fact arsenic, and noted that microbes removed from the lake continued to grow in the lab. Humans might be able to use this bacteria to “treat toxic waste dumps that are filled with arsenic.” It may also be used to create bio-energy, “where it is useful to have a phosphorus-free environment.”
Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the lead scientist in this effort, had already theorized that arsenic could “be a foundation for life,” writing previously, “We hypothesize that ancient biochemical systems, analogous to but distinct from those known today, could have utilized arsenate in the equivalent biological role as phosphate. Organisms utilizing such ‘weird life’ biochemical pathways may have supported a ‘shadow biosphere’ at the time of the origin and early evolution of life on Earth or on other planets. Such organisms may even persist on Earth today, undetected, in unusual niches.”
Wolfe-Simon hinted at the fact that space scientists will surely use this information (as I suggested earlier) to investigate the concept of life on other planets. She says, “We’ve cracked open the door for what’s possible for life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s) profound to understand how life is formed and where life is going…. (There are a) lot of ideas I’d like to test about finding new forms of life. I think that we can learn a lot [on Earth] as well as life in any planetary context.”
Professor James Elser stressed that these arsenic-based life forms may be used to grow other forms of life on Earth. The Huffington Post paraphrased him, saying, “Phosphorus only comes from a few places on Earth that are rapidly being (de)pleted. Phosphorus might become very scarce due to the demand for fertilizer, which is why it’s so exciting that we can possibly use organisms that are able to grow without phosphorus to support the many of the essential functions that phosphorus is a part of.”
It bears repeating that the implications of this finding are huge, and as a lay person I can’t begin to comprehend all of them. But it sounds like scientists are hopeful that this organism might help clean up the environment in some way, and will be able to be used as a resource as we deplete the natural resources we’ve been using as energy sources. Arsenic is of course poisonous to humans, so I can only imagine that will curb the rampant use of this microscopic creature.
Today, obviously, history is being made, and it will be fascinating to see where this discovery leads us. I can only hope to good things! I think the most mind-blowing part of this whole revelation is that people have long awaited to hear confirmation of alien life on other planets, but we never expected to find strangers among us, thriving in a California lake. (Insert your own California joke here.)
On a related note, a scientist from Washington State University told NPR last month that starting in 2030, scientists age 50 plus should begin taking “one-way trips” to Mars to determine whether or not human life could flourish there. The idea disturbs me on so many levels, but it certainly seems today that when it comes to the future of humanity and other life in the universe, anything is possible.
More from Strollerderby: