Friday, December 3, 2010
In case you missed it, yesterday NASA held a press conference to announce the discovery of a bacteria (GFAJ-1 of Halomonadaceae) living in the highly alkaline waters as well as in the mud surrounding Mono Lake in California. Lab tests showed that this bacteria is capable of not only surviving in an environment saturated with arsenic, but that it can actually incorporate the normally highly toxic chemical into it's DNA and use it in place of phosphorous.
One would be hard pressed to exaggerate the "wow-factor" of this discovery from a biological stand point as it is a real life living breathing example of an organism capable of sustaining it's existence by utilizing a biochemistry unlike any other organism on the planet. As far as the impact this finding will have on astrobiology- The search for life on other worlds has to begin by looking for the conditions necessary to sustain life as we know it and this discovery helps to expand our understanding of the conditions under which life can exist. In short, the space agency made good on it's promise to deliver something which would impact the field of astrobiology and this organism itself is an astonishing discovery well worth the attention it received.
To the average person, this discovery probably doesn't mean much, and it certainly isn't as cool as it would have been if this same discovery had been made on another planet; which is obviously what the majority of people thought was going to be the case. I myself was aware of the existence of organisms capable of surviving on arsenic ( the part about the DNA is new microbes living on arsenic is not) and that the subject of the press conference would most likely focus primarily on some terrestrial finding. But even I assumed that the topic would be somehow tied to a specific discovery on another world and it is, in a fundamental non-specific sort of way. But still, a lot of people were both disappointed and even irritated by the subject of the conference and quite frankly, I don't blame them.
To be fair, 99% of the hype about alien life came from outside NASA. But when the general public(right or wrong) sees your organization's primary mission as the search for extraterrestrials, you have to know that holding a special event to share an announcement relating to astrobiology is GOING to generate hype, speculation, and ultimately resentment when reality doesn't live up to their expectations.
Source: Bad Astronomy
For more about the true significance of this find check out Nancy Atkinson's article on Universe Tody.
Among those deeply disappointed by the way NASA handled the release of this information, Justin from Weird Things TV:
Posted by YouTube user:weirdthingsTV