Fairfield professor says NASA's close encounter with bacterium helps us understand what is possible but doesn't represent alien life
(Posted on December 15, 2010)
NASA astrobiologists have discovered a new organism that is unlike anything ever seen before on Earth. The discovery challenges the long held assertions about how life might evolve on alien planets, and could change the way we look for life in the universe.
For Kraig Steffen, a chemistry professor at Fairfield University, the NASA research is valid. "Understanding the breadth of possibilities for the molecular machinery that can be used by living organisms helps us understand how living organism operate, how they change over time, and what they can tolerate," he said.
The scientific discovery was in regards to a new organism that is so different in its makeup that it can realistically be considered alien, just not extra-terrestrial. In a surprising revelation, NASA researchers discovered the new life form in Mono Lake, California, an area that contains a very high concentration of arsenic in levels considered too harsh to nurture life, and poisonous to man. The organism accepts arsenic in its makeup instead of phosphorus, and the DNA found is considered totally foreign to all other life on Earth.
According to Steffen, Mono Lake represents a very unusual aquatic environment, very different than most fresh water lakes and/or the ocean. "Algae, bacteria, etc. that live there are proven 'extremophiles,' and are clearly adapted to unusually high levels of Arsenic," he said.
But does the NASA discovery really indicate there is alien life on Earth? Steffen says, "Not really, but the research does show that the range of possibilities is greater than before this work was done." He says this also may expand the environments in which life could be found on other planets. "It's why NASA is interested. You need to know what you are looking for in order to figure out how to look," Steffen added.
NASA's discovery may not be as thrilling as a Hollywood sci-fi movie, but Steffen agrees the research is interesting again as a marker for what is possible. "It will help us understand the possible varieties of life we may find right here on Earth, and the discovery widens the boundaries (a little) on what we should be looking for elsewhere," he said.
While the alien organism discovery in itself is important to the advancement of science, what it signifies is much more critical. Steffen believes it will determine the effect of the incorporation of Arsenic into the organisms, and NASA, and others, will likely attempt to extend the work to closely related species.
Vol. 43, No. 146