It was not clear in aggregators like The Huffington Post whether it was on the moon, or Mercury, or in some other unnamed part of the galaxy. An embargo on the published paper only added to all the hype and excitement. But when the lunar dust settled, it turns out it was just another strand of unsubstantiated viral gossip, or as we liked to say in the good old days before the interwebs, total bullshit.
The truth was, NASA-funded researchers were hard at work at Mono Lake in California experimenting successfully with a new breed of microorganism— a bacterium– to be accurate, that can survive entirely in arsenic. Yes, arsenic.
You thought those freaky chemosynthesis-dependent tubeworms living 5000 feet underwater next to volcanic thermal vents were tough? This newfound life form, fondly known as GFAJ-1, would outlive it any month of the year. It doesn’t just find a way to live in an unpleasant place; it literally incorporates pure poison into its being and flourishes.
“The discovery will require some textbooks to be rewritten.” Says one scientist who’s hopefully reads enough textbooks to know. I found one from 1988 that says there are six fundamental elements making up the key components of all cells strands (i.e. DNA): carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus. Phosphorus is particularly essential. No living thing can exist without it… till now.
Suddenly, one tiny microbial badass has figured out a way to substitute phosphorous for arsenic and not just survive, but thrive. In just six days, the bacterium multiplied twenty-fold as it wolfed down the pernicious element, belched, and was hungry for more. Anthony Bourdain beware.
“As someone who regularly gives lectures in which I state, ‘every living thing uses phosphorus to build its DNA, the idea that I’m sitting here today discussing the possibility that that’s not true is… shocking.” Exclaims Felicia Wolfe-Simon. And yes, her super fly name is real. “Maybe we’ll be able to find E.T. now because we’ve got more information about what we might be looking for.”
Felicia and a merry crew of astrobiologists at Arizona State were searching for implications on how life can survive on planets like Mars and Venus. But the discovery seems more relevant in relation to how rapidly we’re toxifying our own blue-green planet. What a relief to know that evolution has already begun adaption/mutation in preparation for our acid rain filled future. Makes you want to pump a few more kids out immediately, don’t it?
I, for one, am relieved to know that after the smoke clears from our impending nuclear holocaust with the Middle East, and the burning of every last gallon of fossil fuel we can recklessly extract from the earth, and the chemical processing of the very last chopped down tree, that we’ll be okay living in an atmosphere comprised mainly of arsenic and it’s sister poisons. That’s the real implication of this discovery. On the macrobiotic level, we’re learning to survive in poison.
So don’t sweat recycling, or alternative energy, or any other attempt to reduce your carbon footprint, because evolution is already taking care of it for us. That’s what evolution does when it sees shit going sideways. Our ingenious cellular machinery of lipids, proteins and DNA is hard at work incorporating not just arsenic, but every other vile bi-product we’ve manufactured into the very core of our molecular being, so that we can stay on course in bringing hell to earth as we know it, and hopefully without commercial interruption.
Happy shopping season!