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Posted at 12:14 PM ET, 12/ 2/2010

The big announcement: NASA finds alien life? In California?

By Alexandra Petri

New life! Or something like it!


If NASA's big 2:00 p.m. announcement is what people are saying it is (Update, 1:08 p.m: And it is!) then scientist Felisa Wolfe Simon has discovered a form of bacteria whose DNA uses arsenic instead of phosphorus -- unlike any other life form on earth. I picture this bacteria as sort of a hipster. "Oh, you're still using phosphorus?" it asks. "Yeah, I liked phosphorus during its blue period, but I've moved on to arsenic." "Isn't that lethal?" a regular earth bacteria asks, nervously. "It's an acquired taste," the arsenic bacteria responds.

Apparently, the place to find this sort of bacteria is Mono Lake, California. Admittedly, the announcement that someone has found a totally alien life-form in California is not exactly breaking news. Usually the California response to finding completely alien life is to give it a reality TV show.

Still, this is big news.

At first the headline "NASA finds new life" made me think that NASA was giving up astronomy, getting a haircut, and finally applying to law school. But no! NASA has found a life, not for itself, but for the rest of us, similar to the plot of the final Matrix movie. This life form doesn't follow the rules that all other life-forms must follow in terms of its DNA composition (arsenic instead of phosphorus), hobbies (living in poisonous lakes), and musical preferences (this.)

This means that we've been looking for the wrong conditions for life this whole time! I blame all those movies that depicted aliens as vaguely humanoid, or at least capable of speaking fairly solid English. Now we have to rethink all our assumptions! It's like when you arrive at your aunt's home and assume there will be WiFi, because without WiFi it is impossible for semi-intelligent life to survive. But instead there's just a lot of Perry Como records and those figurines with moving magnetic ice skaters.

I wonder what they think about us. "If Zorg had intended us to reproduce sexually, he would have created Adam and Eve, not Asexual Zimac Progenitor Of All," they murmur to themselves.

Still, I have to ask: can't we ever find a new life form that's even moderately attractive? I know kittens are a once-in-a-planetary-lifetime discovery, but I'd even be okay with a new life form that looked like Jennifer Aniston! Or, heck, Matthew Gray Gubler! He's a fine-looking individual!

But instead, we get arsenic-based bacteria -- which are wondrous and beautiful, of course, in the sense that you have to say your neighbors' children are wondrous and beautiful no matter how much they look like whoever designed their faces got bored halfway through and quit. Then again, I say this now, but these arsenic-based guys will probably be the last ones standing after whatever it is that's going to happen in 2012 occurs.

But what is it doing in California? Well, if it can live on arsenic, it might have a fighting chance in the entertainment industry.

By Alexandra Petri  | December 2, 2010; 12:14 PM ET
Categories:  Big Deals, Petri  | Tags:  NASA, aliens, space  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Scientists estimate three times the number of stars? I blame Snooki
Next: Mulligans: John Boehner's metaphors


I thought you would have learned your lesson when you got all excited by the first Earth-like planet, Gleise 581g, that doesn’t really exist:

“According to a presentation by F. Pepe at IAU Symposium 276, planet g was not detected in a new analysis of data…” - Wikipedia

But now you go off half-cocked again about this new “discovery.” Well according to your link, here’s what one scientist had to say about it:

"It remains to be established that this bacterium uses arsenate as a replacement for phosphate in its DNA or in any other biomolecule."

The link also says that this new find is just a “common bacteria in the halomonadaceae family.” Well, I invited the entire halomonadaceae family of bacteria for Thanksgiving, and only Uncle Joe got arsenic poisoning.

“Nonetheless, the paper and its results have created an excitement reminiscent of the 1995 announcement at NASA headquarters of the discovery of apparent signs of ancient life in a meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica.”

And you know how THAT Mars rock bacteria thing turned out!

“These observations suggest that most, if not all, of the fine grained magnetite associated with Fe-bearing carbonate in ALH84001 could have been formed as result of the thermal decomposition of the siderite (FeCO3) component of the carbonate and is not due to biological activity.” [TRANSLATION: Half-cocked]

So the next time you’re tempted to go off half-cocked about some big “discovery,” I suggest you wait until you can go off full- …. you know.

Posted by: divtune | December 2, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

It took me a few seconds to get this one, but then it's pretty funny.

Arsenic Based Life

Posted by: divtune | December 3, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Not that I'm a foremost or second-most or even in the top 100-most authority on anything science-related, but I can spot a humor article when I see one. Though divtune has some very well-researched data, I don't know that blasting a column called "ComPost" which references Billy Ray Cyrus and prays for aliens that look like the dorky guy from Criminal Minds is the correct forum for this particular diatribe.

Yes, there is some science in the article and yes it may be a little half-(you know what), but it assumes the reader isn't trying to get all their best-researched data from this column. But if you enjoy picking apart the scientific inconsistencies in humor articles, you go ahead and do whatever makes you feel better on your night off from heckling open mic nights.

In the meantime Alex, keep up with the funny. Though I think Hannah Montana's dad gets a bad rep for one darn song, however annoying it may have been.

Posted by: dustinrecsports | December 5, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

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