Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.
"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler...
Phosphorus is one of six chemical elements that have long been thought to be essential for all Life As We Know It. The others are carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulfur.
While nature has been able to engineer substitutes for some of the other elements that exist in trace amounts for specialized purposes — like iron to carry oxygen — until now there has been no substitute for the basic six elements.
Yay. Life on other planets, all that. But first we need space travel to be commercially viable. And here's a huge reason for species and environmental diversity. How many more Mono Lake - type places are there on our STILL unexplored planet? Deep sea isolated life-platforms around subsea volcanoes and volcanic vents. Remote and untouched jungles and harsh environments where different types of life could conceivably exist.
Unlikely - yes.
But just imagine if Mono Lake had been destroyed by manmade industry or geoengineering or business/urban development? Then we'd still be thinking we need phosphorus to build life.
Ouch. That would have sucked, totally. And we wouldn't even have known it. In fact, that might be the case right now, and we just don't know it. Some other place on the planet where life evolved or begun with substance X substituting for one of the "basic six elements" - but we put a parking lot over it - or accidentally destroyed it with nuclear tests, or introduced something harmless like rabbits in Australia that just happened to completely eat out the few remaining examples of this.
But Mono Lake happened. And neither you nor I ever expected that.