Ever wonder what to do with all that extra arsenic you have lying around? Well, not to worry — now there's a bacterium that can eat it all. NASA researchers have found a microbe at the bottom of Mono Lake in California that, when grown for months in a lab mixture containing arsenic, eventually swapped its phosphorous content out for the more poisonous element, according to the New York Times. The NASA team says that if its lab results, which were published online in Science this week, are confirmed, then this microbe — strain GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae family of Gammaproteobacteria — could change the very meaning of life. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the astrobiologist who led the experiment, told the Times that "this is a microbe that has solved the problem of how to live in a different way." Columbia University's Caleb Scharf likens the bacterium's appetite for arsenic to a human morphing into a "fully functioning cyborg" after being put in a room full of electronic scraps. According to the Times, the NASA team's results could also change the way researchers look for life on other planets, causing them to broaden their search for molecules that could be considered as building blocks of life.
But despite all the excitement, some researchers are cautious about hype surrounding this discovery. Iddo Friedberg at Byte Size Biology says that people shouldn't become carried away with the notion that NASA has discovered an "alien" life form, as it's been claimed. "In brief: bacteria uses arsenic instead of phsophorus. Cool and exciting? Definitely. Is this huge? Yes. Extends our biochemical horizons? Certainly. New life? Unlikely," he says.
Boston.com has posted this NECN video, in which NASA scientists discuss their discovery.