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Mono Lake: a view of life...on Earth and beyond

December 3, 2010 | 11:01 am

WolfesimonBiochemist Felisa Wolfe-Simon didn't know exactly what she would find when she led an expedition to Mono Lake, a body of water near Yosemite National Park that is rich in arsenic that leaches from nearby rocks.

A NASA astrobiology research fellow studying the evolution of life on Earth, she suspected that there might be an organism somewhere that could use arsenic instead of phosphorus in its cells -- and it made sense that such a critter might be found in Mono Lake.  Still, she was surprised to discover that the Mono Lake mud she carried back to the laboratory contained a microbe that seemed capable of the arsenic-phosphorus substitution.

Before this finding, reported online Thursday in the journal Science, scientists had believed that all life on Earth required phosphorus to thrive -- and they assumed that life in outer space might need the element, as well.  Monolakemap

Now, some say, they may have to adjust that thinking, and change the scope of their searches for life beyond Earth. 

Incidentally, early reports about the Mono Lake microbe also set off a frenzy on the Web, where some speculated that NASA was poised to announce it had uncovered extraterrestrial life.

Read more about the Mono Lake discovery.

--Eryn Brown

Photo: Researchers Ronald Oremland and Felisa Wolfe-Simon examine a mud sample from Mono Lake. Credit: Henry Bortman, Science/AAAS

Map: Los Angeles Times