60-Second Science

Bacteria Use Arsenic as Basic Building Block in a Pinch

A bacterium has been discovered that can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in fundamental life chemistry. Christopher Intagliata reports

Life on Earth requires six basic ingredients—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus. Those six elements are the building blocks for DNA and RNA, along with proteins and fats. Which means they're essential for life—as we know it. But it might be time to update that list. Because scientists have found a bacterium that can do without phosphorus—live on arsenic instead.

The researchers had a hunch a bug like this might exist, because arsenic has some chemical properties in common with phosphorus. So they collected mud from California's Mono Lake, where the waters are naturally salty, and laced with arsenic. Back in the lab, they cultured microbes from that mud. But instead of adding phosphorus to the cultures to help the bugs grow, they added varying levels of arsenic.

One bacterial strain continued to thrive. And tests confirmed that the organisms compensated for the lack of phosphorus by building their DNA with arsenic instead. The research appears in the journal Science. [Felisa Wolfe-Simon et al., "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus"]

This is the first known life form that seems to be able to swap out one of life's fundamental building blocks with another element. So for astrobiologists hunting for life in space, don’t rule out places filled with poison.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

For more, see Mono Lake Bacterium Exhibits Exotic Arsenic-Driven Biological Activity

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