I came home to a flurry of emails, tweets, and blog posts about NASA’s big announcement. I was momentarily floored when I saw headlines like this:
“NASA Finds New Life” – Gizmodo
“NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical” – The Richard Dawkins Foundation
“Bacteria first species observed to use arsenic-laced DNA backbone” – Ars Technica
Though upon actually reading about the discovery, the most accurate title came from Boing Boing: Weird life form on Earth – kind of, maybe.
Look, it’s an exciting discovery, but everyone is over-hyping it. This bacteria is not an arsenic-based life form in the sense that we are carbon-based life forms. It does not use arsenic as a source of fuel. It does not exclusively build its DNA backbone using arsenic. It doesn’t even really like to do that at all in the wild – it incorporates arsenic under laboratory conditions that force even higher concentrations of arsenic upon it. It is not a different type of life that arose separately from phosphate-using lifeforms.
What it is is an excellent example of evolution. While coming from a phosphate-using ancestor, this bacteria has somehow adapted to an extreme environment that would kill most other organisms. I’m more interested in how it avoids death by this toxin than the fact that it incorporates a molecule extremely similar to phosphate into its DNA. PZ has a more thorough scientific breakdown over at Pharyngula.
Way to go, shoddy science reporting. Creationists are probably wetting themselves over this “new life form,” ready to tell biologists how it could have only been designed. I mean, just look at how this redditor is reacting to your sensationalism:
Is it ok that I’m already discriminating against arsenic based life forms because they are fundamentally different than me? Bunch of arses, they are.
Sigh. Well, at least I don’t have a whole new DNA structure to memorize. Getting a PhD in Genomics was already hard enough.