New Life Form Discovered

By | December 2, 2010

UPDATE: As we discussed on a subsequent FastForward Radio, this story has been almost completely discredited. Sorry I got all excited over nothing.


Per Gizmodo, NASA is preparing to announce the discovery of an entirely new form of life:

Hours before their special news conference today, the cat is out of the bag: NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth. This changes everything.

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. We knew that there were bacteria that processed arsenic, but this bacteria–discovered in the poisonous Mono Lake, California–is actually made of arsenic. The phosphorus is absent from its DNA. 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.

Interesting conversation developing in the comments on the Gizmodo story — people trying to figure out how significant this is, some expressing disappointment that what’s being announced is not the discovery of alien life.

Two points I’d like to make on that.

1. This is huge. How can anyone not see tthat this is huge?

2. Of course it’s alien life. Whether it developed on this planet independently  or it was deposited here by some meteor — this is alien life.

To borrow a phrase from our most recent podcast, this is at the very least a “proof of concept” for alien life.

If it’s from this planet, is there some path by which it could have evolved from common ancestors of the rest of the biosphere? If so, how could that have happened? Every other living thing on earth shares the same chemistry — but not these bacteria.

And if it’s NOT from this planet…

Let’s just say that raises some questios, too.

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  • ehrbar

    The details I read are that it prefers phosphorous, even after extended time it still contains structural phosphorous, and it was obviously ailing in the arsenic-only environment.

    So, what we have here is a standard Earthly phosphorous organism adapted to get by with arsenic, not an arsenic organism that happens to be on Earth.

  • daveprice74

    ehrbar nailed it before I could.

    It sounds like this organism originally evolved using phosphorus and mutated to tolerate arsenic. This should not be taken to mean it could have evolved independently in an arsenic environment, or that anything else could.

    Interesting, yes, groundbreaking… not really. Sorry.

  • ehrbar

    I would certainly like to see this line of research extended, though; if by lab-driven selection we can actually get this organism to make the switch completely, we’ll have demonstrated a complete evolutionary path from phosphorous to arsenic.


    Just as if or when we find life on Mars, the implication is staggeringly important. To find life on Mars, on our very next door neighbor, implies that life is ubiquitous in the universe. And here now a bacteria employing phosporus….this is another implication about life…its to be found in a lot more places than we were thinking was possible yesterday.

  • stephentg

    Popular science points out both that this life form did not evolve independently – it was altered in the lab, AND that this is still a very big deal.

  • stephentg

    Why a big deal? This life form no longer shares the biological building blocks of anything else currently living in planet Earth – that we know of.

    It means that scientists who have argued that we should cast a wider net when searching for life are probably right.

  • rtssdorsai

    I’m going to bet on a corrupted sample …

  • Marty

    The BBC has a little less breathless take on this:

  • daveprice74


    It wasn’t altered in the lab, when they say “manipulated” they’re just talking about the testing.

    What’s most interesting here I think are the possibilities it implies for future genetic engineering. It’s surprising life is this adaptable, which bodes well for us being able to program interesting things into DNA once we can model protein interactions better.

  • fjmenton

    Hmmm. Space shuttle obsolete and canceled, no plausible new space-related mission anywhere in sight, new Congress coming in with clear agenda to chop the budget wherever possible. What is NASA to do? I’ve got it! NEW LIFE FORM DISCOVERED WHOLLY DIFFERENT FROM ANYTHING PREVIOUSLY KNOWN!!!!!! That’ll justify a few tens of billions! (Last year, wasn’t it LIQUID WATER DISCOVERED ON MARS!!!!!!) Six months from now they’ll have their budget and this story will disappear — to be replaced by something completely new and equally preposterous the following year. How much of suckers are the taxpayers?


    This is Alien Life on a pirate satellite
    This is Alien Life everybody hold on tight

  • harvardfong

    DNA, ShcmeeNA. The real test, does it use ATP/ADP or ATA/ADA? I mean, big whoop (sort of) it subs out a P for an As in the backbone, but does it really USE As for all other metabolic functions in place of P?

  • stephentg

    Five TEDTalks to watch for context:

    “this discovery is a stunning affirmation of the idea that life can exist in forms wildly different from those normally found on Earth, and that in turn has enormous implications for how we should look for life elsewhere in the cosmos.

    To help understand the science, and the excitement, here are five TED talks on how, and why, we might search for such life.”

  • ThomasD

    Ehrbar and HarvardFong make valid points.

    To paraphrase the NASA press release “The definition of life (on Earth) has just expanded.”

    This is not an alternate form of life, or even a substantially different form of biochemistry, it is a single atom substitution in certain functionally equivalent biologic pathways.

    Still using DNA, still using the krebs cycle, still having mitochondria. Honestly I would be more interested if it had been an Archaea rather than a Gammaproteobacteria. Maybe then one could honestly argue whether or not it represented something truly alien.

  • chipper49

    A small quibble, but labeling Mono Lake poisonous is hyperbole. In my mind that undermines the writer’s post. Mono Lake is alkaline but nevertheless hosts a rich ecosystem.