Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Isn't It Time for Your Milk and Arsenic, Darling?

"Isn't it time for your milk and arsenic, darling," is one of the great lines of sisterly-disagreement in High Society, a wonderful musical I discussed in a previous blogpost. The reference to arsenic metaphorically conveys the hostility between the pair. Part of the reason this comment is so poisonous is that arsenic is poisonous to every known life form-- or it was thought to be, until now.

In a recent discovery as reported by the New York Times, scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon discovered an arsenophilic (just a guess as to whether that is the right word) life form. The bacteria live in the bottom of Mono lake in an environment rich with arsenic. Wolfe-Simon brought these back to her lab and fed them on an arsenic-heavy diet, slowly swapping the phosphorus traditionally considered essential for life with arsenic.

Phosphorus is the backbone of DNA. Swapping the arsenic with phosphorus opens a number of possibilities for alternate building blocks of life, and is something never seen before. According to the article, "Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University who was not part of the research, said he was amazed. '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,' he said. " (article).

This provides a greater variety of possibilities not only for alien life, but also a possible new system of life on our own planet. How cool is that?

New York Times Graphic from article.

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