The microbes were culled from the bottom of Mono Lake in California, the highly toxic lake that formed 760,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest and freakiest lakes in North America. Mono Lake is prized for its bizarre ecosystem: There are no fish, but there are trillions of brine shrimp, alkali flies and single-celled algae. Its hypersaline waters are toxic and arsenic rich.
The press conference was timed with the release of an article in Science, authored by members of the research team who found the microbes and grew them in a lab. "It is building itself out of arsenic," geo-microbiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon said at the press conference yesterday. Wolfe-Simon, a fellow at NASA's Astrobiology Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey, spearheaded the research and authored the Science paper with a laundry list of co-authors. "All life we know is the same biochemically, and this is a little different. It is suggesting there is another way to be alive."
These microbes don't rely on ATP either, which most high schoolers can tell you is essential for cell division and many other mandatory processes in any given cell. Basically, no life form we've been aware of on this pale blue dot has been without ATP or phosphorus, until now.
So why is this even relevant? Because it proves that planets don't need water and and carbon to sustain life. This is an expansion of the definition of life -- and that means textbooks will need to be rewritten, and these findings may have an impact on bioenergy research, as well as toxic waste management, two areas discussed at the press conference.
"It's not about arsenic, it's not about Mono Lake, its about thinking about life in a planetary context. We've cracked open the door to what's possible for life elsewhere in the universe, and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not," Dr. Wolfe-Simon said.
Coupled with yesterday's announcement that the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life is now three times higher than previously expected--they've discovered eight elliptical galaxies, containing a shocking number of red dwarf stars, around which trillions of Earths could be orbiting--well, it's been a week that would have made Carl Sagan very, very proud.
(They're out there.)