December 3, 2010
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“NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.
Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell 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 idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction,’ said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. ‘Until now a life form using arsenic as a building block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono Lake.’”
This astonishing discovery has major implications for the search for extraterrestrial organisms, and implies that the emergence of life may be even more ubiquitous than scientists have long surmised. So far we have limited our search to locales that meet the requirements of carbon-based lifeforms here on Earth. We now have concrete proof that alternative lifeforms are possible, implying that life could potentially arise in a remarkably large spectrum of circumstances.
The revelation will undoubtedly lead us to reexamine locations within our own solar system that we had previously concluded to be lifeless. Perhaps the most poignant lesson we can take from this breakthrough is the unfathomable tenacity of life. It would seem that once the first extremely formidable obstacle of the initial development of life is overcome, the newly emerged organism will cling to existence against all odds, adapting to all circumstances and flourishing even where biology seems an impossibility.