“The Definition of Life Has Just Expanded”

Mono Lake, California. Photo by me.

UPDATE: The research cited in this post is currently being questioned. That does not detract from the sentiment of this post, however. DL–12/09/2010

On December 2, NASA announced some biggish news. It seems on this planet, in Mono Lake, California, there exists a microbe that “substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in the backbone of its DNA and other cellular components.” Now, back when I was in school, I was taught arsenic was bad for all living things. Well, turns out, that’s not always so. This microbe, the unfortunately named GFAJ-1, likes arsenic.

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute wrote about this discovery: “The bottom line, and the reason why this work is both relevant and encouraging for the search for cosmic company is this: In our efforts to find extraterrestrial life, we can easily run into a confounding problem — recognizing life when we see it. Of course, there won’t be any difficulty knowing that we’ve found life if it’s of the hairless, humorless Klingon variety. But it’s safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of alien creatures will be microbes….

“The import of this story is that finding life as we don’t know it in a California lake will give us a better shot at testing for biology on worlds that are, both by definition and in fact, truly alien.”

So it seems science text books will have to be written. And that’s a very good thing (especially when we stop using tree-paper-based textbooks), because science, the narrative, doesn’t have an ending. There are new discoveries, as long as we continue to look and continue to question.

Which leads me to this clip of Jill Tarter, which I think about quite often. I added some archival footage just for the heck of it.


What are the things being taught in science classes now that will need to be updated 20 years from now? It’s exciting to think about, isn’t it?

Discovery of “Arsenic-bug” Expands Definition of Life, NASA Science, Science News

Life, But Not As We Know It by  Seth Shostak in The Huffington Post