UPDATE2: 12/2/2010 10:15AM PST, NYT reports on this a full hour before the NASA news conference at 2PM EST (11AMPST) that it is in fact about arsenic microbes. – Anthony
UPDATE: It may not be so profound as I conjectured below after all. Our always sharp WUWT readers point me to articles in the Daily Mail (and also Telegraph blogs) which say it is more terrestrial in nature than extraterrestrial.
Nasa scientists are set to announce that bacteria have been discovered that can survive in arsenic, an element previously thought too toxic to support life, it can be revealed.
In a press conference scheduled for tomorrow evening, researchers will unveil the discovery of the incredible microbe – which substitutes arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth – in a lake in California.
The remarkable discovery raises the prospect that life could exist on other planets which do not have phosphorus in the atmosphere, which had previously been thought vital for life to begin.
But it seems like old news, as this paper from 2004 talks about microbes using Arsenic in Mono Lake: The microbial arsenic cycle in Mono Lake, California
There is also this earlier story from The Times, from May 2010 asking: Do alien life forms exist in a Californian lake? The scientist, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, quoted in that article, is also on the NASA press panel tomorrow. If they are indeed announcing arsenic microbes in Mono Lake, it sure seems like they waited a long time to do it, and the press release wording invites a lot of speculation.
From NASA’s press release here there’s been a lot of buzz and speculation around the blogosphere on what may be announced tomorrow.
It may be mundane, such as they’ve found some building block of life in some comet or asteroid sampling mission, or they may have found evidence of life somewhere. I doubt it will be anything higher than microbe level if they do. Still, that would be fantastic news in itself. But after looking at the publications in the CV of one of the participants, James Elser of Arizona State University and his work in desert environments, plus Pam Conrad, co-author of a papers on Death Valley geology and how it pertains to Life signatures on Mars, I’m going to make a SWAG and offer that the press conference may have something to say about discovering the ingredients of and/or byproducts of life on Mars, via some samples from Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. It is one possibility.
The other SWAG possibility I see is some discovery from the Cassini mission and Titan, Saturns’ largest moon, which has a chemical soup “smog”. Earlier this year on June 3rd, NASA made a press release titled:
Here’s the money quote:
“We suggested hydrogen consumption because it’s the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth,” McKay said. “If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth.”
But then there’s this:
“Scientific conservatism suggests that a biological explanation should be the last choice after all non-biological explanations are addressed,” Allen said. “We have a lot of work to do to rule out possible non-biological explanations. It is more likely that a chemical process, without biology, can explain these results – for example, reactions involving mineral catalysts.”
I suppose if deep sea hydrothermal vents can support chemosynthetic bacteria using hydrogen sulfide for food, why not hydrogen and acetylene?
Of the two possibilities I cite, I’m thinking some announcement about Cassini and Titan has a higher probability. Maybe it will be somethings as simple as “we see signs of life on Titan, but we need more money to find out”.
We’ll find out in about 24 hours.
NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery; Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 p.m. EST On Dec. 2
WASHINGTON — NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website at http://www.nasa.gov.
– Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
– Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
– Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
– Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
– James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe
Media representatives may attend the conference or ask questions by phone or from participating NASA locations. To obtain dial-in information, journalists must send their name, affiliation and telephone number to Steve Cole at email@example.com or call 202-358-0918 by noon Dec. 2.
For NASA TV streaming video and downlink information, visit:
For more information about NASA astrobiology activities, visit:
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