back to article THE TRUTH on the Californian NASA POISON ALIENS

The discovery of a previously unknown lifeform in California that lives on arsenic is prompting astrobiologists to broaden their hunt for alien life. The new bacterium - GFAJ-1, part of the class Gammaproteobacteria, which also includes E.coli - was discovered in samples taken from Mono Lake. The lake is naturally high in …


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  1. walnut

    Volcanic Yosemite?

    For the record, though Yosemite National Park is indeed near Mono lake, it is not an active volcanic region. Most of the local volcanic activity is located South of Mono lake, particularly in the Mammoth Mountain region, which is well-known to ski enthusiasts in Southern California as well as the business community at large, which gets their collective panties in a bunch every time possibly destructive volcanic activity is predicted.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      An early howler from the Register there - nicely spotted.

      Mono Lake itself is actually the site of a number of active volcanoes; one of which on the lake's floor might have erupted as recently as the early 19th Century. It's the northern end of the Mono-Inyo craters chain which are also considered active and are intermittently seismically active.

      Mammoth Mountain at the other end of the chain is as you say, another volcanic centre. It's a series of lava domes that came up more than 57,000 years ago. The mountain itself is not thought to be likely to imminently erupt, but again, there has been plenty of activity in and around the mountain. In the 1980s there was a lot of seismic activity around the mountain and increased CO2 flow from underground killed trees on the mountain which did put the USGS on alert.

      All of these are associated with the colossal Long Valley Caldera which is the lesser-known sister of Yosemite. It's erupted a number of times in the Holocene, most recently about 60,000 years ago; but its biggest eruption was 760,000 years ago when it poured out an unbelievable 700km3 of white hot foam which fills a good part of the upper Owens Valley. That too is considered active with lots of seismic activity and regular ground deformation as magma slops around deep underground.

      It is also a staggeringly beautiful area and well worth renting a car to visit if you're ever in California or Nevada.

  2. J 3


    That's one genome I'd like to see! Very cool. Looking forward to seeing the paper -- right now, seems a bit confused about the whole matter. The front page shows a little feature about it on the top, but when you click the links, you get taken to a page saying something like "this hasn't been released to the public yet", except for the "News" link, which has a little blurb on the discovery. I guess they are on the process of updating the site...

  3. Joe User

    What is your definition of "near"?

    "The new bacterium - GFAJ-1, part of the class Gammaproteobacteria, which also includes E.coli - was discovered in samples taken from Mono Lake. The lake is naturally high in arsenic because of its location near the volcanic hotspot of Yosemite National Park."

    Mono Lake, California and Yosemite Nation Park, Wyoming are about 850 miles (1,368 kilometers) apart. To put it in UK terms, that's about twice the distance from London to Edinburgh.

    1. thecakeis(not)alie

      @Joe User

      Yosemite National Park is just a national park. The volcanoes that are part of the chain of which the mono lake volcano is part are predominantly found within the park. The chain however does extend outside of that park...which would make "near Yosemite National Park" valid. Geologically speaking, they are essentially all part of the same shindig.

      In Canada at least, 850km while not exactly “near” (that’s usually reserved for “within 300km of”) is certainly classified as “not too far from.” It’s all relative…

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Sorry, incorrect

        The Mono Craters and associated volcanic features EAST of the Sierra Crest are all outside the boundaries of Yosemite, which is a completely different landform located WEST of the Sierra crest.

    2. Adrian Esdaile

      What is your definition of 'passing geography?'

      I think you'll find YOSEMITE National Park is about the width of a road - let's be generous and say 1km from Mono Lake.

      I think you'll find YELLOWSTONE National Park is in fact in Wyoming.

      I know, the 'Y's make it confusing.

      Do try to keep up.

      1. asdf

        omg what a dumb ass

        You know Jellystone is where Yogi Bear is from. Yosemite is where Sam is from. Guaranteed Joe is merkin.

  4. UBfusion

    Old news, slow day, or cover up?

    I read the story on BBC, and there is a link to another article ( from August 14, 2008 (same research team). Are they pulling our leg or is this another major cover up case of e.g. "Arsenic-based lifeforms found on Mars" ?

    1. envmod


      how can NASA create all this big fuss, media embargo etc etc when the "discovery" is over 2 years old?

      it's not even news - total waste of everbody's bloody time.

      axe NASA that's what I say. bunch of idiots.

      1. Alan Esworthy

        almost seven

        Feb. 14 2004 is the original publication date of this paper by Ronald S. Oremland, John F. Stolz, and James T. Hollibaugh titled "The microbial arsenic cycle in Mono Lake, California"

        So this is not the first time that this old news has been recycled.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

  5. thecakeis(not)alie

    This organism thrives on an element otherwise considered poison.

    In a weird way, it's nice to know that when we succeed in extincting much of the life on this world through environmental destruction and massively irresponsible pollution that life will find a way regardless. Perhaps it is possible that if we were really smart we could utilise this bacterium to help us clean up our messes...or at least to direct our research into modifying extant organisms such that they could do the same.

    There are plenty of people who tell me that the existence of life doesn’t matter if the human race isn’t among that life. Indeed, there are plenty of people that tell me that once they are themselves dead all life could go extinct for only they themselves matter. I never could understand this point of view…I think a universe without life would be a tragedy. A lost chance if you will.

    I don’t know if life does indeed exist elsewhere in the universe, or if this one lone island of biochemical uniqueness is the only shot. Until we find evidence of it elsewhere however…I think we should do our best to see that life not only survives, but spreads. Seed it to as many worlds as we can…better the chances of it surviving something like a gamma ray burst or a nearby nova.

    This particular form of life doesn’t seem different enough to serve as a seed organism on its own…but it offers some hope that we may yet discover an extremeophile with a suitably different biochemistry to send to another world. I understand such an idea is abhorrent to some folks; “why spend X millions of dollars sending some microbe to Mars when you could give that money to me so that I might spend it on hookers and blow?” I hope that we aren’t all that shortsighted.

    There’s an odd comfort in knowing that long after I am dead, life will remain. Somehow, the knowledge that we managed to give it a chance on a world other than our own would give me yet more hope. For now though, I can only dream…

    1. No, I will not fix your computer

      Re: This organism thrives on an element otherwise considered poison

      Ahh..... but what you have to remember is that most elements in the wrong quantities will change from life giving to life taking (oxygen is a good example, too much, you die).

      1. graeme leggett Silver badge


        in the words of Scott and Griffins seminal paper of 1978 Level Headed

        "You get too much you get too high

        Not enough and you're gonna die

        (Love gets you high0"

  6. Ammaross Danan


    Wasn't this the exact concept behind the movie "Evolution" with the use of Selenium to kill off the rampant lifeform(s)?

    Either way, who's the boffin that decided to artificially limit our search parameters? Might as well call it earth-like-lifeforms-in-SPACCCCEEEEEE instead of "alien lifeforms"

    1. thecakeis(not)alie


      Quick. Define "life."

      I'll get my entertainment-snack-that's-not-popcorn.

  7. potato_hawk

    big news?

    big whoop, having lived there most of my life, I can honestly say that California has all KINDS of unique lifeforms.

  8. geoburke

    Arsen-itch Creme t-shirt

    Can you believe someone made a t-shirt?? "Arsen-itch: the Arsenic Bacterial Lifeform Creme".


  9. A. Coatsworth Silver badge

    What's the deal with the RANDOM CAPITALIZATION?

    There are at least 5 ARTICLES with weird CAPITALIZATION in their titles, in the RSS Feed. I don't know about the fellow readers, but I find it FREAKING ANNOYING (and harder to write, mind you)

  10. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    Few thoughts

    "The holy grail would be a microbe that contained no phosphorus at all."

    If they're looking for a bacterium that exclusively uses arsenate instead of phosphate, on Earth, good luck. For such a lifeform, phosphate would be as poisonous as arsenate is for us, for the same reasons. And given how phosphate is necessary for virtually all lifeforms on Earth, finding a place compatible with life yet devoid of phosphate is not going to be easy.

    As per the implications for ET life, all these people are assuming that life outside our world, if it exists, must be exactly similar to what evolved here. That's both quite stupid and quite pragmatic. Quite stupid because the odds are ridiculously infinitesimal (even when compared to the already ridiculously infinitesimal odds that life exists outside of Earth in our perception timeframe, to begin with). Different physical conditions would promote different chemical dynamics, and thus different element requirement for life, for example. Quite pragmatic because if life exists somewhere else in a very different form as it does on Earth, we would probably not be able to recognize it even if it kicked us in the 'nads, so why lose time looking for it?

    Also, your tags are messed up. Strangely enough, Aresnic and Bacterianasa don't yeld any results (other than this very article, of course).

    1. J 3


      "all these people are assuming that life outside our world, if it exists, must be exactly similar to what evolved here"

      Exactly similar? Definitely maybe. :-)

      Anyway, the real point seems to have passed right above your head! It's exactly the opposite that they are suggesting. Their interpretation of the discovery is that, given the existence of this bacteria, life *different* from ours would be at least in principle possible, using different elements than the ones we use -- in this case, arsenic instead of phosphorus. Good luck doing the same for carbon, in my opinion, but at least there is a precedent now, so to speak.

      "That's both quite stupid and quite pragmatic. Quite stupid because the odds are ridiculously infinitesimal"

      Er... Could you tell us exactly how you know how to calculate the odds of life? Life might be inevitable in the right conditions (e.g. Earth-like, the only point we have in the curve). Or it might be so unlikely and "accidental" that it only happened here, once. Or any other probability in between. Since we don't know the mechanisms and details of life origin, or even if more than one type of like is possible to begin with (maybe only life primarily based on the "common elements", like ours, is possible -- or even convenient, since such elements are common everywhere -- or maybe not), we can't really tell either way.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Geography lesson

    Yellowstone: geothermal hotspot - Wyoming

    Yosemite: lots of granite and waterfalls but not so much volcanos - California

    Mono Lake - near Yosemite.

    From Mono Lake down to Mammoth Lakes, on the east side of the Sierra there ARE geothermal/volcanic features of recent days.

    However, on the other side of the Sierra, where Yosemite sits, no serious magma activity going on.

    I think somebody got their "Y" National Parks mixed up.

  12. This post has been deleted by its author

  13. Brett Weaver

    And.. of course

    Selenium from "Free and Lovely" will kill it...

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    It's 2010, where is my flying car?

  15. Anonymous Coward

    wow, its news to me...

    because i didnt think there were any intelligent life forms in California.

    1. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: wow, its news to me...

      I get it!

  16. ScottK

    @Joe User

    Yosemite National Park is in California. Methinks you are getting it confused with Yellowstone.

  17. rc

    Not as cool...

    As alien women with beehive hairdos wanting to know more about this earth custom called 'kissing'...

    It might make a nice biological filter stage for a well though...

  18. Johnny Canuck

    I, for one

    welcome our new arsenic based microbial lifeform overlords.

  19. Gary 24
    Thumb Up

    Alien life in California???

    Must be Steve Jobs!!! Apple is a alien conspiracy to take over the world with over-priced substandard products designed to brain wash into totalitarian control through iTunes.,....

  20. frank ly

    The best joke so far........

  21. Step'n'Fixit


    The big news in this "major announcement" wasn't that the only extraterrestrial lifeform we know of originated right here on earth, but that NASA now stands for National Aquatic and Sludge Administration.

  22. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

    As I noted yesterday

    arsenic is rare compared to phosphorus. Why does life use the elements it uses: in part due to chemical properties, in part due to availability. Given two similar elements, organisms which use the commoner of the two will thrive at the expense of those that require the rarer. Technically speaking, the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the former species is larger than that of the latter. Given that phosphorus is in the order of 1000 times more abundant than arsenic, guess what life ends up using.

    1. Nigel 11

      Not nearly that simple

      Enzymes (catalytic proteins) are extremely specific to particular electronic configurations of particular elements and molecules. It's not just possible to just substitute one element for another, not even similar ones like Phosphorus and Arsenic. The enzymes and proteins have to be altered so that the substitute becomes useful, rather than a poison. The electronic balance is so finely-tuned that living organisms even select isotopes, rejecting the heavy isotope of Oxygen, Nitrogen, Carbon and especially Hydrogen. The energy levels are very slightly wrong, and enzymes incorporating the heavy isotopes don't always work properly.

      Take haemoglobin (the red iron-based oxygen transport in our blood). There are three similar substances found in other living things. Insects use a copper-based molecule. Some marine worms use a cobalt-based one. Chlorophyll, which has a different role, is a rather similar molecule based on Magnesium.

      Haemoglobin is the best oxygen transport molecule, and Iron is as abundant as Copper (maybe more so) on dry land. So why haven't insects evolved to utilize Iron for their oxygen transport?

      I imagine that the sequence of mutations necessary is unlikely, and the intermediate forms that would be necessary never found a niche where they could survive and evolve, due to competition from un-mutated insects. Or perhaps the intermediate is such a poor oxygen transport, that the mutation is only viable in a tiny marine common ancestor. Also, although copper-based blood works less well than iron-based blood, it's probably less of an issue than body design for insects (with exoskeletons, which rules out lungs, restricts oxygen supply, and places a size limit of a few inches on all insects). In the case of life with lungs, haemoglobin would offer a much greater advantage, making large life-forms, and even large flying life-forms, possible.

      Birds, by the way, have a subtly different haemoglobin protein to the mammalian version. Also iron-based, but the big protein framework surrounding the Iron atom is subtly different. That's how some geese can fly at the altitudes where we need a pressurized environment to survive.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        title clamps

        The size limit of insects can be somewhat mitigated when living in water (hence the comparatively huge exoskeleton bearing fossils and even some large crustations living today). However, that first sea scorpion that became the first living thing to colonise the barren, rocky thing we call land pretty much doomed the insect to much smaller sizes.

        Tho, if it wasn't for insects, there wouldn't be life on the land.

        As an aside, I thought this announcement was about the bacteria in Mono Lake that used to just use arsnic and spit it out being coaxed in a lab to integrate and replace phosporus with arsnic in its DNA, hence why what would be old news is now new news. Of course, because of the abundant nature of phosporus, the moment it's released back into Lake Mono, even with its high levels of arsnic, it'd be poisoned by phosporus.

        As the great Jeff Goldblum once had written for him "life finds a way". From this to the emerging plastic ecosystem in the great Pacific Gyres (check it out, the plastic is slowly degrading, falling to the bottom and creatures are now having a go at making do with this new and abundant resource) life is far more capable than we ever gave it credit.

        Hell, we're even discovering that plants are much more than autonomous photosynthesates - I await the impending moral connundrum by militant-moralist vegans when the first self-aware plant is discovered ;)

  23. TwistUrCapBack
    Thumb Down

    drum roll ...........

    nasa want their collective faces slapping for this utterly dissapointing anticlimax

  24. joe K 1

    Embargoes are routine

    The embargo will have been instituted by Science, not NASA. The top journals (Science, Nature etc.) insist on no public disclosure of content submitted for publication up until they gave done so themselves. As the discovery is crucial to NASA's aims, it made sense for them to do a press conference, but could not do so until Science ok'd it.

  25. Joe User

    Sorry for the mix-up

    I need a new map....

  26. Anonymous Coward

    @Nigel11, @Nigel11, @Nigel11...

    sorry but your post is wasted on the likes of us who tootle around on wikipedia and google maps and call it thorough fact checking

  27. E 2

    Just more proof

    that the blogosphere is 99% noise.

  28. RosieRedfield

    Researchers think NASA is wrong

    I've posted a long critique of the microbiology and molecular biology at

    Alex Bradley has provided the chemist's critique over at ScienceBlogs, at

    We agree that the authors' conclusions and NASA's hype are unfounded.

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