I’m not being hyperbolic. This is something that will have a dramatic impact on biology, the search for extraterrestrial life, and evolutionary thought:
Hours before its special news conference today, the cat is out of the bag: NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living on planet Earth. This changes everything.
At its conference today, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon will announce that NASA has found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on Earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, shares the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same.
But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible. While Wolfe-Simon and other scientists theorized that this could be possible, this is the first discovery. The implications of this discovery are enormous to our understanding of life itself and the possibility of finding beings in other planets that don’t have to be like planet Earth.
Now the real fun begins. Quite literally, this bacteria is alien life – it is a species whose line has diverged from every single other species on Earth that we’ve found. But when did it diverge? A million years ago? A billion? Or did it diverge at all? Is it a part of a completely different lineage, of arsenic-based lifeforms that were outcompeted by us? Or is it an example of abiogenisis, a literally new lifeform that has sprung up out of nothing? Or did it find its way here on a rock from another world, from Titan or Mars, and find a resting place where it could survive? Are there more species like it, hiding in areas that are poisonous to species like ours? Or is it unique on this planet? In this solar system? In the universe?
No matter what, it presents something exciting and new. Life on other planets is likely to be based on different biochemistry than ours; DNA is our coding system not because it’s the best or only system that works, but because it’s the one that won the dance of evolution. This species represents something alien to us – a species that is not a sibling, like whales or platypuses, nor a cousin, like spiders or earthworms, nor even far-flung relation, like pine trees or E. coli. It’s a species that is, for the first time, completely different than us. And that makes it perhaps the most important thing we’ve ever found.