Another form of life based on Arsenic?

The Arecibo message as sent 1974 from the Arec...

The Arecibo message as sent 1974: image via Wikipedia

The Telegraph  has an eye-catching headline (naturally):

‘Life as we don’t know it’ discovery could prove existence of aliens

But even without the exaggerations and the splash headlines, the possible existence of a form of life intimately connected with Arsenic would have enormous consequences on the definition and abundance of life in the universe and on how to go about searching for extra-terrestrial life.

NASA has sent the internet into a frenzy after it announced an “astrobiology finding” that could suggest alien life exists – even on earth.

The discovery could prove the theory of “shadow” creatures which exist in tandem with our own and in hostile environments previously thought uninhabitable. The “life as we don’t know it” could even survive on hostile planets and develop into intelligent creatures such as humans if and when conditions improve. In a press conference scheduled for tomorrow evening, researchers will unveil the discovery of a microbe that can live in an environment previously thought too poisonous for any life-form to survive.

The bacteria has been found at the bottom of Mono Lake in California’s Yosemite National Park which is rich in arsenic – usually poisonous to life.

Somehow the creature uses the arsenic as a way of surviving and this ability raises the prospect that similar life could exist on other planets, which do not have our benevolent atmosphere. Dr Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at the Centre for Planetary Sciences in London, said: “If these organisms use arsenic in their metabolism, it demonstrates that there are other forms of life to those we knew of. “They’re aliens, but aliens that share the same home as us.”

The Brisbane Times reports:

The US space agency has created a buzz with its announcement of a press conference early tomorrow morning (Australian time) to discuss a scientific finding that relates to the hunt for life beyond the planet Earth.

“NASA will hold a news conference at 2pm EST (6am AEDT) to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life,” it said on its website.

But Nasa has declined to elaborate further on the topic, other than to say astrobiology is the ”study of life in the universe, including its origin and evolution, where it is located and how it might survive in the future”. The vague announcement has sent the blogosphere in a flurry of speculation about its potential meaning.

Blogger Jason Kottke tipped NASA would announce the discovery of arsenic on Titan, or possibly chemical evidence of bacteria utilising it for photosynthesis.

That speculation was quickly picked up and repeated by a number of other bloggers and internet sites. However Kottke theory has been rebuffed by Alexis Madrigal, senior science writer for The Atlantic, who tweeted that he had read the Science article relating to the Nasa announcement. ”I’m sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I’ve seen the Science paper. It’s not that,” he tweeted.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal in which the research will appear, told ABC News in the US that it had received numerous inquiries about the “mostly erroneous online and/or tabloid speculation about the forthcoming research”.

For NASA TV streaming video and downlink information, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv at 2pm EST today (2nd December).

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