Arsenic supports life?

The toxic element might be able to replace phosphorus to support microbial growth, casting doubt on the belief phosphorus is essential to life

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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Dec 1, 2010
A strain of bacteria isolated from a salt lake in California can grow on arsenic, seemingly in lieu of phosphorus in its DNA and other major biomolecules.
Mono Lake, California
Image: Image © 2010 Henry Bortman
The finding, published today (December 2) on the Science Express Web site, throws into doubt the long-held belief that phosphorus is absolutely essential to life, and broadens the range of environments in which scientists might expect to find extraterrestrial organisms."This is a surprise," said biochemist linkurl:Barry Rosen;http://medicine.fiu.edu/faculty_departments.php?ss=office_aa⊂=research of Florida International University, who was not involved in the research. "Not just for bacteria but for life in general, arsenic is one of the few elements that is considered to be only toxic and has no role in metabolism."It's "pretty damn surprising," agreed ecologist linkurl:James Elser;http://sols.asu.edu/people/faculty/jelser.php of the Arizona State University, who also did not participate in the study. "I've spent my career studying phosphorus limitation,...
Scanning electron micrograph of the bacterial strain isolated from Mono Lake under high arsenic, low phosphorus conditions.
Image courtesy of Science/AAAS
Felisa Wolfe-Simon collects samples from Mono Lake.
Image: Image ? 2010 Henry Bortman
F. Wolfe-Simon, et al., "A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus," Science Express, 10.1126/science.1197258, 2010.



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