NASA has discovered an entirely new life form based on arsenic.
NASA-supported researchers have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic.
The microorganism, which lives in California's Mono Lake, substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in the backbone of its DNA and other cellular components.
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 it.
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.
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 identifier, GFAJ-1, was given to the microbe by the discoverer, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, and stands for Give Felisa a Job.