NASA discovers microbe that replaces phosphorus with arsenic in its DNA

December 6, 2010 |

In Washington, NASA announced that they have discovered a new microbe in California’s Mono Lake,  that can use arsenic as a fundamental building block in its DNA.  While it has been known that microbes can survive in high arsenic environments, this is the first known case of a microbe that uses arsenic to replace phosphorus in its DNA.

The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic, the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.

As a fundamental biological discovery, this will impact everything we know or thought we knew in biology, including all sorts of possible bioenergy applications.  Bioenergy requires phosphorous, an increasingly hard to find chemical, as a critical component for the biomass that it is dependent on.  Arsenic based life forms may prove able to produce the products we need without using phosphorus.

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Category: Research

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