3 December 2010
Or maybe just a gravid female Mono Lake Brine Shrimp, Artemia monica.
heard if you go into the bathroom with a candle, turn the lights off, and whisper “reversed chirality” into the mirror seventy-three times you can actually *see* the shadow biosphere”

Well, I heard that arsenic makes you fat. And horny.

“Well, I heard that Tesla invented ununquadium-based life, you know, and hid it in a mountain in Colorado, and,”

I heard that Saturn’s moon Titan is made of liquid unicorns!”

Sorry.  The universe is a pretty crazy place, our own little stony clot of matter being no exception, and as things go, life is, really.

As I’m sure you have already heard, we are made of star stuff, and this connection is evident in how our own elemental makeup broadly mirrors that of the Earth and the Universe as a whole.  The six elements commonly regarded as the primary building blocks of life, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, phosphorus, sulfur and nitrogen are the 1st, 3rd, 10th, 13th, 15th and 32nd most abundant elements in the Earth’s crust.  Other biologically important elements (e.g. iron, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potasium) largely round out the top 10 and the relative paucity of nitrogen in the crust is more than made up for by its superabundance in the atmosphere (thanks diazotrophs, we owe you one)

Stepping back a bit, CHNOPS and FeCaMgNaK all rank in the top 20 in elemental abundance in the universe.

To put things into perspective, arsenic, the subject of some breathless reportage today, is quite a bit rarer in the universe.  It ranks 41st in abundance in the universe, just behind tellurium (number 40) and just ahead of freaking yttrium (number 42).  The same goes for our own planet in particular where arsenic ranks at 48th in abundance by mass percentage.

(Incidentally, I got thes figures from WolframAlpha the first time that I’ve actually been able to put that seemingly powerful tool to any sort of meaningful use.)

Not to rain on anyone’s arsenic alien parade but if Earth’s boring old vanilla non-shadow biosphere (the overwhelming bulk of it anyway) is any indication, if life exists elsewhere in the universe it seems pretty likely that its elemental composition will more or less reflect the overall composition of the universe. Pinning hopes on a relatively scare substance, arsenic, when the alternative, phosphorous is rather abundant seems misguided. Just sayin’


These new experiments
show some bacteria already adapted to a fairly chemically extreme environment might, maybe, incorporate arsenic into their biomolecules when subjected to fairly elaborate artificial laboratory conditions.  But making the leap that this tells us something about what life outside (or hidden deep inside) our planet might be like, is equivalent to saying that because humans can survive and thrive with artificial hips that we should expect to find martian metazoans with composite titanium and plastic skeletons.

None of which is to say that this new discovery is anything short of totally rad. It also shows the value of doggedly pursuing what might seem like wacky ideas. That the prediction of parallel properties of arsenic and phosphorus might have biological significance is the stuff of science fiction, so it’s pretty easy to see why the press has gotten a little, uh, carried away by all of this. Also, dude, the periodic table came to Mendeleev in a dream!

Somewhat lost in all of the coverage about this remarkable Mono monad is the fact that Mono Lake sports an entire ecosystem that is very bizarre, if decidedly terrestrial. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

There are no fish in Mono Lake—no frogs, no snakes, no pollywogs—nothing, in fact, that goes to make life desirable. Millions of wild ducks and sea-gulls swim about the surface, but no living thing exists under the surface, except a white feathery sort of worm, one half an inch long, which looks like a bit of white thread frayed out at the sides. If you dip up a gallon of water, you will get about fifteen thousand of these. They give to the water a sort of grayish-white appearance. Then there is a fly, which looks something like our house fly. These settle on the beach to eat the worms that wash ashore—and any time, you can see there a belt of flies an inch deep and six feet wide, and this belt extends clear around the lake—a belt of flies one hundred miles long. If you throw a stone among them, they swarm up so thick that they look dense, like a cloud. You can hold them under water as long as you please—they do not mind it—they are only proud of it. When you let them go, they pop up to the surface as dry as a patent office report, and walk off as unconcernedly as if they had been educated especially with a view to affording instructive entertainment to man in that particular way. Providence leaves nothing to go by chance. All things have their uses and their part and proper place in Nature’s economy: the ducks eat the flies—the flies eat the worms—the Indians eat all three—the wild cats eat the Indians—the white folks eat the wild cats—and thus all things are lovely. – Mark Twain, Roughing It 1872.

Be sure to click through for more mildly racist humor (lighten up, dude, it’s satire!)  Somehow, Twain overlooked that other strange component of the Mono 80s hair-rockers.

The usual suspects have great, sober, and thought-provoking coverage of the new discovery.

Anyway though, if you really want to know about extraterrestrials, there’s only one person to ask:

9 Responses to “DOODZ! ALI∃NZ!!!1!”

  1. Jessica Says:

    Do you have a license for that photo, microecos?

  2. Molly Says:

    Wait, I have a question about this. They’re not a new species, right? It’s a species that has learned to eat something new? How far off am I? How come all the headlines say NEW SPECIES!!!

    • Neil Says:

      Depends what you mean by “new” and “species.” As far as I know the microbe has not formally been named but is still referred to by its temporary designation: GFAJ-1 (purportedly an acronym for “Get Felisa A Job,” Felisa being the name of the lead scientist on the new paper). The preliminary analysis presented in the supplementary materials show that the new organism likely fits within a previously know bacterial genus Halomonas a globally widespread salt-loving microbe first described in 1980. Because bacteria evolve rapidly, generally reproduce asexually and often swap genetic material freely among distant relatives, there is no solid consensus as to what constitutes a “species” in Bacterialand. The new paper refers to it as a “strain.”

      So I suppose you can say it is a new member (perhaps even a new “species”) of a relatively well-known group. But it is certainly not “an entirely new type of life” as many of the reports seem to imply.

  3. Meurl Fruuei Says:

    Oh wait, I missed this on the first pass: “her nickname is Iron Lisa.” Amazing. Blog-creator, your new nickname is Neon-Il, which will work for your next career, as a North Korean sign installer.

    • Neil Says:

      Sure enough. And an Obie Oboist, huh? Why not “Iron-Lithium Sa?”

      My mother’s brother, a soil ecologist, made fun of her for burdening me with the initials of the standard fertilizer metric.

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