The Coast News Group
Not That You Asked

Science gives us reason to look past ourselves

Just as the lame ducks in Congress threatened to wash away our holiday-season cheer with their bickering, along came news suggesting that E.T. could be knocking on our doors any day now to ask us to go out for a bicycle ride.
As for the sorry state of the legislative branch in Washington, what are you going to do? Has it always been thus?
As of this writing, it looked as if our nation’s wealthiest folks would continue to reap the harvest of a “temporary” tax cut that’s been going on for about nine years now, since the early days of the first term of George W. Bush. The cuts were to expire this New Year’s Eve. Being held hostage were scores of hard-pressed Americans whose unemployment checks were about to run out.
So, when it came to pass that we learned poison sustains life on Earth — and we’re not talking now about the vitriol spewed across the aisle in the U.S. Senate — now we had something to wrap our blogospheres around.
For a team of scientists announced that an organism lives on our planet which lives on arsenic and needs no phosphorus, the element we’ve been so sure all along was essential in order for life to exist.
Phosphorus, in its white variety anyway, left by itself in air, unbound to any other substance, is known to catch fire. Arsenic, on the other hand, is a leading ingredient in nerve gas. Arsenic is said to be tricky and insidious because the body perceives it as phosphorus; until it’s too late, that is.
This newly found life form, a bacteria dubbed GFAJ-1, also lives, as it turns out, right here in our own geological wonderland of the state of California.
It resides, along with a species called the brine shrimp, at a place called Mono Lake, some 290 miles from where the 5 meets the 78 here in North County. Birds are said to find brine shrimp tasty, and we are thought to find them inedible.
On the TV news, the scientists on this project were throwing around the name of E.T. as if the adorable extra-terrestrial from the movie of the same name was waiting for us right around the next corner. Cast in the spotlight, GFAJ-1, our bacterial friend, was morphing into kin of E.T. Life does imitate art.
Before we get too carried away, I understand that objective and dispassionate science requires backing up a few steps to note that E.T.’s cousin has been here all along and we just hadn’t gone out looking for him until now. Like any other organism, certainly a phosphorus-laden one, this bacterium is another form of life because it adapted to its environment.
Is there a movie in this somewhere called “Kissing Cousins” perhaps, given that the degrees of separation between E.T.  and GFAJ have narrowed in our collective mindset and, besides, that chemists put phosphorus and arsenic in the same “family” on the periodic table? Here come the bacteria, struggling up from the mud, swimming to the surface, evolving into fin fish, thriving on brine shrimp, crawling out of the lake, settling comfortably down on the planet, the neighbors from the “shadow biosphere” next door.