A Whole New World

December 6, 2010

A new fantastic point of view, brought to us by poison.

study by NASA scientists recently revealed that the bacteria GFAJ-1 in arsenic-laden Mono Lake, California exhibit such high levels of arsenic that they may actually be incorporating the arsenic into their DNA in the place of phosphorus. Thats a pretty big deal. Our and everyone else’s cells use phosphorus in the structural support of RNA and DNA and in our cell membranes. Arsenic is  is very structurally similar to phosphorus, which mean it acts like a KGB operative that can sneak undercover into the areas of the cell that use phosphorus and mess everything up, kill the cell and the owner of the cell, and emerge victorious in the cold war. In other words, it is highly and famously poisonous (I will never forgot this Roald Dahl story I read freshman year of high school. Eeby Jeebies!).

But these bacteria in Mono Lake have a much higher concentration of arsenic that would generally be possible in a living organism, so scientists have extrapolated that the bacteria have turned the arsenic into a double-agent. They think the bacteria may actually successfully using the arsenic in their RNA and DNA. Notice the word, extrapolated. They actually haven’t proved this yet, which is why a bunch of people have poopooed the study.

I still think it is cool. Even if the bacteria are not using the arsenic in their DNA, they still have super high concentrations. Maybe they can help us understand how we might treat arsenic poisoning, which often occurs around mines. Or maybe the study will just lead to a whole slew of new science fiction, which isn’t so bad either.

Either way it’ll be a thrilling chase in a whole new (hypothetical) place for scientists.

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2 Responses to “A Whole New World”

  1. Jean Polfus said

    nice. I read that study too (or the NYTimes article). I like the analogy.

  2. Toni Polfus said

    What is the Roald Dahl story?

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