Thursday, December 09, 2010

Complete heresy: life based on arsenic instead of phosphorus??

I had a wrenching gut reaction to first glancing at the headlines suggesting that a bacterium had been found which could live on arsenic instead of phosphorus...  My university degrees were in biochemistry, and if one thing was certain in this world, it was the basic recipe for life anywhere would have to contain carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus. Phosphorus forms the backbone of strands of DNA and RNA, as well as ATP and NAD, two molecules key to energy transfer in a cell. Arsenic is one row down in the periodic table from phosphorus and so does have similar chemical properties. It is a poison for us because it inserts into proteins and nucleic acids where phosphorus should, and screws up their action. A look at the article by Wolf-Simon et al., however, made me breathe a bit easier, because what they has actually done is to take a bacterium that lives under extreme conditions, in Mono Lake, located in eastern California, which is a hypersaline and alkaline water body with high dissolved arsenic concentrations. They grew the bacteria in increasingly high levels of arsenic (radioactively labeled), while decreasing phosphorus levels, and found arsenic incorporation into protein, lipid, nucleic acid, and metabolite fractions of the cells. So... these creatures are certainly different from us, they have evolved to be able to deal with arsenic. From Pennisi's review of this work:
Wolfe-Simon speculates that organisms like GFAJ-1 could have thrived in the arsenic-laden hydrothermal vent–like environments of early Earth, where some researchers think life first arose, and that later organisms may have adapted to using phosphorus. Others say they'll refrain from such speculation until they see more evidence of GFAJ-1's taste for arsenic and understand how the DNA and other biomolecules can still function with the element incorporated. “As in this type of game changer, some people will rightly want more proof,” says microbiologist Robert Gunsalus of the University of California, Los Angeles. “There is much to do in order to firmly put this microbe on the biological map.”

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