Arsenic and the Shadow Biosphere

At 2 O’clock today, eastern standard time, NASA announced the discovery of “alien” life on earth. Found in Mono Lake, California, this bacterial life uses arsenic in the place of phosphorus in its organic structure, making it unconnected to the rest of the biosphere as it is currently understood. Scientists have long surmised that arsenic could play some kind of role in xenobiology. In many ways the element is similar to phosphorus, but, crucially, can not be used by organic systems, and kills just about every known organism. The discovery is being lauded for opening up new spaces of possibility in the search for extra-terrestrial life, particularly on Saturn’s moon Titan. NASA scientists are also hoping that the discovery will help spur interest in future missions to Mars and Titan, and are now considering retrofitting probes to also search for the presence of arsenic.

Yet while many look up to the stars, the discovery gives me some pause to look down, back to earth, and wonder at just what other things may be living, alien, and unknown all around us.

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