Today NASA held a press conference where they disclosed the discovery of a microbe (on Earth) that can swap what was believed to be an essential element of life, for a toxic chemical. And during the press conference, one of the NASA scientists drew a comparison to the Horta from Star Trek.
NASA discovers life NOT as we know it – draws comparison to Star Trek’s Horta
NASA has discovered a new life form, called GFAJ-1, which is different than all other life on the planet. So far it has been understood that all life is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. But this new microorganism found in Mono Lake, California is able to substitute the poisonous element arsenic for phosphorus.
This clip (via NBC) from today’s NASA newsconference explains the finding in more detail…
This is an important step for those searching for life, as noted in the NASA press release:
"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it."
Essentially NASA has discovered a strange new life form, which is very Star Trek. In an interview discussing the finding , NASA molecular biologist Steven Benner, explained the discovery using a Star Trek analogy:
“When we’re searching for alien life, if it’s not a Ferengi from Star Trek, what would it be?” Benner asked FoxNews.com. In his estimation, we’ve always defined life as something that has the exact same chemistry as a life-form on Earth. The new discovery will likely change that equation, because it means the basic building blocks of DNA are not quite what we thought.
Benner, said the arsenic-loving organism at Mono Lake grew without high levels of the nutrient phosphate (although some phosphates were still present). Just as important, it could change how we look for alien life on other planets, especially on Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.
But the Trek connection didn’t end there. Today NASA held a one hour news conference to discuss the finding. During the Q&A Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, drew a comparison to Star Trek to explain why this was big news:
This is a phenomenal finding. We are talking about taking the fundamental building blocks of life and replacing one of them with an unusual, perhaps not unpredicted, but another compound. In our mind this is the equivalent, and some of us remember seeing the original Star Trek episodes, but of ["Devil in the Dark"] and the Horta. This in our mind is the equivalent of finding that Horta which is a silicon based life, substituting carbon, which is what we think all life forms are made of, with silica. Now we are talking about an organism that we think we are talking about an organism that, if not replacing all of it, appears to be using another fundamental component of life. The story is not entirely carbon. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and the other essential elements–it is replacing arsenic for phosphorus. This is a huge deal.
Voytek was referring to the shambling rock creatures discovered by miners on Janus VI. Here is the scene from "Devil in the Dark" where Spock explains (using language similar to NASA’s press release) his theory on how the Horta may not be carbon-based.