Arsenic-based life and Astrobiology

3 07 2012

File:Arsenate.png

It’s been some time since the controvertial announcement that “arsenic-based life” had been discovered on planet Earth.  With time, however, the less-sensational reality of the discovery has been made more clear, and I think it is sensible to review the current state of the research as it relates to the biochemistry of life and the idea of “alternative” biochemistries.

An Imminent Announcement

NASA "meatball" insignia 1959–82 and 1992–presentThe recap: Making some serious waves back in November of 2010, NASA released a media advisory stating that a news conference would be held days later that would reveal “an astrobiology finding” that would “impact the search for extraterrestrial life.”

The journal Science strictly embargoed details until the news conference was held.

Of course, the internet went bezerk.  NASA’s announcement, the first of its kind since the announcement of potential bacterial fossils in Mars meteoriete ALS-84001, seemed to hint to many that a rover had finally hit paydirt.  Signs of extraterrestrial biology had finally been found!

However, the rampant speculation that followed only fueled an initial spike of disappointment with the actual announcement: that young biogeochemist and astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon led a research team that discovered, as was popularly-reported, “arsenic-based” life here on Earth.

Wolfe-Simon’s discovery was  published in the journal Science and was actually met with a fair degree of sensationalism right out of the gate, followed by sharp criticism that survives to this day.

File:GFAJ-1 (grown on arsenic).jpg

Magnified cells of bacterium GFAJ-1 grown in a medium containing arsenate. (Credit: NASA)

GFAJ-1: The Arsenic Experiment

A critical question of astrobiology is whether or not life is required to take advange of the same chemistry we do, i.e., that our biochemistry is the only biochemistry that works.  If other types of chemistry were available to life, (such as silicon-based life hypothesized on Saturn’s moon Titan,) then this implies that opportunities for life elsewhere in the universe are great in number.

If not, then life may be more rare; waiting for the perfect “goldilocks” conditions before it can arise.

Testing this hypothesis, astrobiology researchers have been pressing for evidence of so-called “shadow biospheres,” or examples of life taking advantage of different or exotic chemistries right under our own noses.  In other words, seeking out environments where life might have evolved out of necessity to take advantage of different, ordinarily toxic chemical elements is one strategy to investigate the question here at home.

With this objective in mind, Wolfe-Simon (and colleagues) proposed that instead of phosphate (PO4), life might find a way to substitute arsenate (AsO4, depicted in the header)  into its DNA.  Specifically, by isolating an extremophile (an exotic bacterium) from the bizarre ecosystem at work in the alakaline, salt-ridden, and arsenic-laden Mono Lake, Wolfe-Simon’s research team claimed success: the identification of an organism that was capable of substituting arsenic for a small percentage of its phosphorus!

Clarifying “Arsenic-based” 

Wolfe-Simon’s findings, which were obtained when the GFAJ-1 bacteria were grown in a culture doped with arsenate, are more accurately described as identifying a potential “arsenic-utilizing” as opposed to “arsenic-based” form of life.  Even so, the results were considered a boon for those proposing widening the technical search for extraterrestrial life.  In this view, should life be utilizing very different biochemistry than what we’re accustomed to, it is possible that the instruments on our rovers, etc., might not even detect it (or recognize what it was that was being detected).

However, the results have been hotly-debated since, and more recently, have been outright cast into doubt when researchers just this year used a separate analytical method and failed to detect arsenic in the GFAJ-1 bacteria.

The Take-Home

The jury is still out considering whether or not we’ve actually detected so-called “alien” biochemistry or hard evidence of a shadow biosphere.  That having been said, the justification and approach is still in my opinion a solid one.

It remains within the realm of possibility that extraterrestrial life (or terrestrial life under extreme conditions) might, due to opportunity or necessity, be chemically different from our own.

Food for thought.





H.G. Wells, Crichton, and Planetary Protection

22 02 2012

Much of the challenge of communicating scientific concepts to the public at-large comes in attempting to find ways to make ideas easily digestible.

When talking about human space exploration, the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life, or the recovery of cultural artifacts from non-terrestrial sources, the concept of planetary protection is key.  Basically, planetary protection stresses the importance of working to prevent the spread of biological contamination between worlds.

However, for those who are unfamiliar or who would prefer a succinct example to a rehash of the technical definition, allow me to take a stab at an explanation less esoteric:  Planetary Protection in terms of Michael Crichton and H. G. Wells.

As arguably two of the most well-known science fiction authors of the 20th Century, it seems only fitting that each penned a story that together provide planetary protection’s two worst-case scenarios.  [[PLOT SPOILER ALERT]]

In Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” a returning military satellite inadvertently carries with it an extraterrestrial pathogen, with fatal consequences for a retrieval team as well as a small Arizona town.  This is a prime example of the dangers of returning to Earth from an extraterrestrial environment, and why planetary protection measures are important for us.

On the other side of the coin, in H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds,” invading extraterrestrials, despite demonstrating an extreme level of technological advancement, are ultimately defeated by terrestrial pathogens due to their lack of planetary protection measures.

So, in short, (using Wells and Crichton as guideposts,) planetary protection is intended to prevent:

  • our being harmed by alien bugs
  • potential aliens from being harmed by our bugs.

To the point, the last thing we want to do is go to Mars searching for life, only to inadvertently kill it, or worse, track it back home so that it wreaks havoc on our ecosystem.

That’s it.  You can say it all between The War of the Worlds and The Andromeda Strain.  Planetary protection in a nutshell.





Dealing with space contamination

24 08 2010

Operation of LOCAD-PTS swabbing unit on the palm of a NASA spacesuit during simulated activities at Meteor Crater, Arizona; 09/2005. Credit: Dr. Jake Maule.

Planetary Protection, despite how it sounds, does not refer to a Bruce-Willis-style suicide mission to save Earth from an incoming asteroid.  However, it is one of those practical space exploration concerns that will only get more important with time.

So, what is planetary protection (PP)?

Think of it as the discipline of preventing the spread of interplanetary biological contamination, either from or to Earth, by astronauts, rovers, and anything else we might send between worlds.

For instance, what good is the search for life on another world if we actually deliver it there, (e.g., bacteria hitching a ride on the outside of a spacecraft) – or worse – if we accidentally contaminate the site and kill the life we’re looking for?

To this end, NASA scientists have been developing the LOCAD-PTS, which stands for Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System.  Much like a Star Trek “tricorder,” the handheld device includes an electronic swab wand and onboard processor designed for the rapid testing of biological substances.  In just 15 minutes, an analysis can be performed and contamination results delivered to a waiting astronaut.

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams using the LOCAD aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

A number of field tests have been performed with the system so far, with many actually performed in space on the International Space Station to determine how biological material is transferred from Earth to space, and to monitor the spread of that material while there.  Samples were taken both inside and outside the station.  Beyond contamination on the exterior of spacecraft being transported to another world, in a closed environment the movement of biological material is also important to ensure astronaut health.

Even better here is the famed NASA technology “trickle-down” effect.  The LOCAD system as tested by NASA will also be highly useful on Earth.

Applications of the LOCAD procedures and technology include not only science on Earth, but also detecting lethal viral outbreaks and helping first responders during a potential biological attack.

With the forethought of technology programs like this, not only will all worlds involved be kept more pristine, but any data gathered will be that much more defensible.  Here’s hoping that before too much longer, the offspring of the LOCAD will get to see some action off-world.








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