The science story of the day is that one of the basic assumptions about life on Earth — and potentially elsewhere (get it?) — has been upended by a discovery at Mono Lake, the briny prehistoric lake in the Eastern Sierra. Scientists found that a microbe in the sediment on the lake's shore doesn't need phosphorous to thrive. It can essentially replace the phosphorous thought to be essential to life with arsenic. And arsenic just happens to be one of Mono Lake's dominant features, along with brine shrimp, brine flies, tufa and unbelievably gorgeous vistas. From the Christian Science Monitor:
If you thumb through an introductory biology textbook, you'll notice that six elements dominate the chemistry of life. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen are the most common. After that comes phosphorus, then sulfur. Most biologists will tell you that these six elements are essential; life as we know it cannot exist without them.
The recent discovery by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of an organism that can utilize arsenic in place of phosphorus, however, has demonstrated that life is still capable of surprising us in fundamental ways
Wolfe-Simon is a NASA research fellow in residence at the USGS in Menlo Park. Arsenic-consuming bacteria could also have many uses here on Earth. The scientists have been talking about this finding for a couple of years — here are two earlier NYT stories — but a new article in Science and a press conference today ramped up the media hype. More coverage: NYT, Time, NPR. AP video report below:
Satellite image: NASA