Headlines are saying today that NASA found microbes that use arsenic the way all other known life uses phosphorous. The NASA website says NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical. Some other headlines include “NASA finds ‘alien life’ made of arsenic,” “NASA finds arsenic-based life,” and “NASA finds arsenic-loving bacterium.” These headlines are misleading.
The phrase arsenic-based life is misleading because most people would assume this is in contrast to carbon-based life. No, the discovery involves substituting arsenic for phosphorous. So this new microbe is only arsenic-based in the sense that most life is phosphorous-based. Actually, even that is not correct. This is a phosphorous-based life form that has been tricked into using arsenic.
NASA did not find a microbe that substitutes arsenic for phosphorous. They coaxed a microbe into substituting arsenic for phosphorous. Here’s the relevant paragraph from NASA’s story:
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.
So it seems that NASA found a microbe that could use arsenic, not a microbe that naturally does use arsenic. Perhaps some are inferring that because NASA was able to make this happen in a lab, it may also have happened naturally, though no one has seen that. Maybe so.
NASA goes on to say
The key issue the researchers investigated was when the microbe was grown on arsenic did the arsenic actually became incorporated into the organisms’ vital biochemical machinery, such as DNA, proteins and the cell membranes.
This is an amazing discovery, but it’s not quite the discovery that headlines imply.
Update: More detailed criticism of the NASA announcement from Nature News. Experts challenge the claim that the microbes actually incorporate arsenic in organic compounds.