Friday, December 3, 2010

Coming to a Theater Near You - "Arsenic Becomes You"

Mono Lake - California
You, me and everything here on earth is made up of six basic elements:  carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and sulfur.  This has been undisputed and considered to be irrefutable by virtually every member of the scientific community ad infinitum.  I am no scientist, having studied the things of the mind in college, but I am intrigued by the news today of the discovery of a new bacterium that does not require phosphorous for survival.  This is really BIG news in the scientific world and challenges some very basic assumptions, opening the door to what is being called a shadow biosphere. 
This is where things start to get really interesting.  You see, there is a female biochemist named Felisa Wolfe-Smith who went to Mono Lake in California to sift through the briny substances living there.  Mono Lake is full of water that runs off from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and contains 700 times the amount of arsenic that is considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.   The water is trapped there so it provides a perfect environment to study unusual critters like the one Wolfe-Smith found.  Her common bacteria friend really likes arsenic.  It likes it so much that it got rid of most of the phosphorous and incorporated the arsenic into its core genetic and energy transfer systems.  I’m not going to go much deeper, because, like I said, I’m no scientist, but I can tell this is a really BIG story because the word shadow biosphere is being thrown around and this means there might be other life forms here on earth.  Aliens from other planets are no longer an issue, they may be living among us – we just don’t have the tools to detect them.  How can this be?  All this time we’ve been looking to Mars, when critters right here might be our biggest threat. And speaking of Mars, take a good look at the picture of Mono Lake.  It doesn't look like anything I've ever seen on earth and it's just a stones throw from San Francisco.  The Midwest is looking pretty good right now.
So, everything you have ever believed about life may have just been challenged.  If you look at a rose, or an elephant, a tree or me you can assume that the six basic elements are there, but these new guys might be lurking right in our midst and be undetectable.  I’m not sure we’re ready for this. 
I’m going to leave the continued research to Wolfe-Smith and her brilliant colleagues, but I’m going to stay on alert for the shadowy figures among us.  These creatures that thrive on arsenic can’t be a good thing for our health, nor particularly intriguing as future friends, but they could be great fodder for the next great B movie.  Who needs “Arsenic and Old Lace,” - the next feature coming to a theater near you might be called  “Arsenic Becomes You.”


  1. Funny, interesting, and explained in a way that even I could understand it (usually I zone away after a few scientific words are introduced).

  2. Thank you. I'm sort of the same way, but I got intrigued after Philip's enthusiastic explanation. I'm glad you enjoyed it - a bit of a departure from my usual musings.