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What’s the infamous chemical that makes NASA’s new life discovery so amazing, and why is it such a big deal?

Few poisons are more notorious than arsenic. So, scientists were recently shocked to find that a strange bacterium called Halomonadaceae (a type of protobacteria) in Mono Lake, California, is actually thriving on it.

The finding is blowing researchers’ minds, showing how much more there is to be discovered about the types of life forms that may exist both on Earth and in space. To give you an idea of how unusual this concept of life is, exobiologists (scientists who study the possibility of life on other planets) are fixated on the microscopic entity.

Halomonadaceae actually take arsenic and incorporate it into their DNA, the first known lifeform to use this substance so associated with death in such a vital manner.

Why is arsenic so destructive?  The name derives from the Greek arsenikos, “potent,” or “masculine.” Put simply, the subtance blocks the ability of certain moleculesto reproduce chemicals essential for their survival.  Governments have banned its use in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.

For years, arsenic  has been a favorite silent murder weapon chosen by mystery writers. But it has also been the suspected cause of death for a wide range of important figures throughout history, from Napolean Bonaparte to Huo Yuan Jia, a Chinese martial artist.

And then there’s Emerald Green, a pigment based on arsenic that was favored by Impressionist painters. There are suspicions that Van Gogh’s neurological disorders and Monet’s blindness could have been caused in part by their exposure to Emerald Green.

Improbably, arsenic has also been used in medicinal contexts. It is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, and it was used to treat syphilis before penicillin. Also, it was once believed that the topical application of arsenic helped the skin keep a youthful glow. During the Victorian era, women used a mixture containing arsenic to lighten their skin.

68 Comments

  1. computer mouses -  February 21, 2012 - 8:21 pm

    We’ve planned to write something similar to this in my webpage and this also has given us a concept. Cheers.

    Reply
  2. Francis -  April 11, 2011 - 5:59 pm

    moleculesto or molecules to. Hot word, I’m dissapointed

    Reply
  3. Dr. Tal Lewinger -  December 26, 2010 - 6:19 pm

    Arsenic was also used in the former USSR until the late 80′s to treat painful and infected root canals of teeth. A red preparation containing arsenic was placed into the nerve of a painful tooth. It would kill the nerve and the bacteria stoping the pain and would set to a rock hard state. It would also stain the treated tooth an ugly red-brown stain. This treatment is called Russian red root canal treatment. When they work they work great but when they fail they are impossible to re-treat. As a general dentist practicing in Vaughan, Ontario, Canada (a city with a large Russian community) I have the misfortune of seeing a lot of teeth treated this way in my practice.

    Dr. Tal Lewinger D.D.S.

    Reply
  4. AMY-LOU -  December 10, 2010 - 10:44 am

    WOW!!! This was a very good blog to read but the type-Os has got to go!!!

    Reply
  5. omeone -  December 10, 2010 - 9:36 am

    :) Where would someone be able to get Arsenic? :)

    Reply
  6. rattiemama -  December 8, 2010 - 10:18 am

    Quite fascinating, but really just evidence of the life science principle we learned in junior high…Adaptation! The bacteria have merely adapted to their poisonously harsh environment. The drive to survive inherent in all living things is awesome!

    Reply
  7. louis paiz -  December 8, 2010 - 5:25 am

    i would like to know more about nasas discovery of life. i knew it that sooner or latter great surprises where comming thums up for our american minds i allways have said that we have the best man in charge of our society. thanks

    Reply
  8. jasmine -  December 7, 2010 - 1:53 pm

    your totally right saf

    Reply
  9. Saf -  December 7, 2010 - 9:14 am

    @CyberQuill

    Homeopathy involves diluting base elements into practical nonexistence before administering them, under the pseudoscientific pretense that the water will have a “memory” of the active ingredient, and mimic its effects while remaining harmless.

    If you had actually been given whole “drops” of arsenic (using an imaginary water-dropper as my measuring stick here) as a kid, you’d likely be in a wheelchair now.

    ~Saf

    Reply
  10. Rich Durst -  December 7, 2010 - 8:52 am

    “Come on people,it’s not that complicated…”

    Except “moleculesto” wasn’t there when the post first went up. I’m guessing you haven’t noticed, it’s actually fairly common for a HotWord to be posted with errors in it, then get edited later after several readers have commented on it.

    And the sentence still doesn’t make sense. Molecules don’t need to reproduce chemicals in order to survive, living things do.

    On top of that, they didn’t fix “subtance,” and they added another typo with the missing space. Rather disappointing.

    Reply
  11. G.Mohan Dass -  December 6, 2010 - 6:50 pm

    “Something ends with a new begining” no wonder many more to unfold but I need a support to contribute a fraction of it

    Reply
  12. sim simma -  December 6, 2010 - 5:17 pm

    ok, i’m really surprised that most peope here can’t see that he forgot to put a space between ‘molecules’ and ‘to’. Not exactly rocket science is it? And I happen to be a ‘rocket scientist’.

    Reply
  13. Pabs93 -  December 6, 2010 - 2:51 pm

    -Certain Molecules to-
    for those who are saying certain what?

    Reply
  14. claudia -  December 6, 2010 - 2:14 pm

    wow :) / :(

    Reply
  15. lisound829 -  December 6, 2010 - 1:57 pm

    Come on people,it’s not that complicated…
    “Put simply, the substance blocks the ability of certain molecules to reproduce chemicals essential for their survival.”

    Reply
  16. Mike Simmons -  December 6, 2010 - 12:43 pm

    If you thought this was interesting, check out the book “The Disappearing Spoon” It is based on the periodic table of the elements but is much more interesting.

    Reply
  17. Drdigg -  December 6, 2010 - 10:15 am

    So, jack, you’re saying, basically; it’s not so much that they thrive on arsenic already, but that they can survive on it in the absence of phosphorous. Right?

    Reply
  18. ramya -  December 6, 2010 - 10:06 am

    its very useful n quite interesting. Can u pls provide more information……..

    Reply
  19. mark v -  December 6, 2010 - 9:42 am

    Like jack said, my understanding they didnt discover a bacteria that was living off Arsenic, but rather conditioned a preexisting one to.

    Nitrogen, phosphorus and Arsenic all are structurally similar (Same calumn of the periodic table, same orbitting electrons, usually same physical sort of properties. When they make glass, they cut it with different metals to increase/decrease the strength of it (i think its carbon/ Silicon, and below). This is only surprising or unheard of because its being done in an organic process.

    Reply
  20. THE BLAH GUY -  December 6, 2010 - 9:39 am

    i always thought people were poisoning me but then i found out about my water supply ……….ah alas the plot thickens

    Reply
  21. jack rudd -  December 6, 2010 - 9:26 am

    Actually the researchers starved the bacteria of phosphorus, so they had to use arsenic or die. The bacteria thrive better on phosphorus.

    The real question is, why is this so widely misreported?

    Reply
  22. lauren -  December 6, 2010 - 9:10 am

    hey cool nasa

    Reply
  23. Odyseuss -  December 6, 2010 - 8:08 am

    Yah im the first one

    Reply
  24. anon -  December 6, 2010 - 8:05 am

    “n the United States, arsenic is linked to some of themost common causes of death.”

    What, like heart disease? Or is being poisoned epidemic now? Also, “themost.”

    Reply
  25. aileanisvahmitt -  December 6, 2010 - 8:03 am

    U R Gr8 !
    This is odd:
    “Put simply, the subtance blocks the ability of certain to reproduce chemicals essential for their survival. In the United States, arsenic is linked to some of themost common causes of death. Governments have banned its use in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.”
    “of certain______?” & “themost.” Lucy, S’plain…Iamvahmmittailean @B0 0 )=

    Reply
  26. anon -  December 6, 2010 - 8:02 am

    “the subtance blocks the ability of certain to reproduce chemicals ”

    Certain what?

    Reply
  27. Saf -  December 6, 2010 - 7:28 am

    Interesting, but not shocking. There are bacteria in some caves that thrive on sulfuric acid potent enough to dissolve skin. There are also mollies (a type of fish) that have adapted enough to swim in it.

    ~Saf

    Reply
  28. poopy turds -  December 6, 2010 - 6:47 am

    your mom likes to get DP

    Reply
  29. John -  December 6, 2010 - 6:19 am

    Watch your spell-check, guys! Typos! You guys are supposed to be the word people — it’s just too embarrassing when you have typos in this blog! I count three goofs.

    Reply
  30. Tuesday -  December 6, 2010 - 6:14 am

    Well obviously California will try and live off anything, Pretty much everyones in the hole right now, But, Im so glad were slowly coming out. Thats beside the point. California – Like a showgirl; It will pull you in and bring you down. Still, These chemical may cause a hugge wave of death in that area. So watch out.

    Reply
  31. Gottfried Grobbelaar -  December 6, 2010 - 6:02 am

    In the boook “IN GODS NAME” written by David Yallop, mention is made of over 200 poisons which is undetectable to the human senses. No smell taste or colour but nevertheless lethal in very small doses. Could someone please indicate what they are and where are they to be found, eg in curing of leather, paints, plastics to which the everyday life is exposed

    Reply
  32. shocked -  December 6, 2010 - 5:58 am

    interesting

    Reply
  33. Cathy -  December 6, 2010 - 5:32 am

    Interesting story, but there’s a typo & a word missing: “Put simply, the subtance blocks the ability of certain to reproduce chemicals essential for their survival.” substance & certain cells?

    Reply
  34. Rich Durst -  December 6, 2010 - 5:24 am

    “Put simply, the subtance blocks the ability of certain to reproduce chemicals essential for their survival.”

    The ability of certain what?

    Reply
  35. N. Banta -  December 6, 2010 - 3:42 am

    Arsenic… A very destructive chemical but bacteria benefit from it! How amazing! :))

    Reply
  36. lunanoir -  December 6, 2010 - 3:31 am

    I read somewhere that in the Renaissance era, the ladies used it to widen the pupils of their eyes to give them that dreamy doe eyed look…

    Reply
  37. Tavin -  December 6, 2010 - 2:15 am

    Good article, though ‘the ability of certain (what?) to reproduce chemicals essential for their survival.’

    While it is a bit of criticism, I’m genuinely interested into what it was meant to be.

    Reply
  38. Anucat -  December 6, 2010 - 1:50 am

    great!!

    Reply
  39. Ajay -  December 6, 2010 - 1:41 am

    It is interesting to know this new discovery.

    Reply
  40. Michael Dadona -  December 6, 2010 - 12:37 am

    From your article it shown that in our life “devil” can be classified into two (2); necessary and unnecessary. For this case, Halomonadaceae is a necessary “devil” for exobiologists to develop a new subject of research.

    Whatever it is and as life is concerned, this world is totally depends on human’s “hand” to go for prosperity or annihilate. Same thing happen to the so called a group of scientist, divided into; necessary scientist and unnecessary scientist.

    Reply
  41. Cyberquill -  December 5, 2010 - 9:35 pm

    Arsenic has been used in homeopathy for a long time. My mom always gave me arsenic drops when I was sick as a kid. Surprisingly, I’m still alive and strong enough to type this comment.

    Reply
  42. Jhack -  December 5, 2010 - 6:14 pm

    wow thats cool

    Reply
  43. Neeraj -  December 5, 2010 - 5:29 pm

    It is scary – what protection human race would have against such a life form should it start spreading itself?

    Reply
  44. Great Geek Of Georgia -  December 5, 2010 - 5:23 pm

    wOw this is a shocking revelation, It disturbds the atapaxia of my jaded mind. I was bamdozzle though know if i should believe or not cause Arsenic is just around us. The blitzkrieg of news rapture my notion about Arsenic.To say the very least it live me on awe for an hour. This is BOGGLING me!

    Reply
  45. Sir Sycamore -  December 5, 2010 - 5:19 pm

    Haha, I bet those women weren’t too pleased with the results.

    Reply
  46. spelz -  December 5, 2010 - 4:16 pm

    coolio

    Reply
  47. Joshua Mejia -  December 5, 2010 - 3:49 pm

    Apparently, the EM HTML tag actually works in comments. I thought it was plain text. Oops.

    Reply
  48. Joshua Mejia -  December 5, 2010 - 3:45 pm

    Hello,

    This article caught my attention when I opened thesaurus.com as a reference while I am editing a book. I enjoyed the information; I also noticed three things in the fourth paragraph. As one writer to another, I mention these in a spirit of helpfulness:

    >> The name derives from the Greek arsenikos{{{, “}}}potent,” or “masculine.”
    << The comma and opening quote mark before "potent" are included between the HTML tags.

    >> Put simply, the {{{subtance}}} blocks the ability of certain {{{ }}} to reproduce [...]
    << The first noun is missing a letter; the second noun is missing altogether.

    Always reading and writing,

    JoshuaMejia.com

    Reply
  49. jason -  December 5, 2010 - 2:57 pm

    And in Asiatic medicine, it is used as a ELIXIR for sexual potency of males. Some people take as a euphoriac drug.

    Reply
  50. pinkbear -  December 5, 2010 - 2:54 pm

    so if arsenic is banned…where is it stored knowing that there is plenty supply of arsenic?

    Reply
  51. zoe -  December 5, 2010 - 2:32 pm

    whoa

    Reply
  52. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  December 5, 2010 - 2:31 pm

    The story of arsenic is much-stranger…

    1. Chemically, the elements in the periodic table have similar valences straight-down the chart, but also properties similar to those on the diagonal– so that arsenic can be a phosphorus substitute but also similar in ways to silicon and tellurium…

    2. Just breathing the air around Mono Lake may be sickening… Skiers at the nearby resort, if passing the lake, may discover the problem after a few days…

    3. The third husband of the famous religious leader Mary Baker Eddy was diagnosed as poisoned-to-death by arsenic… but herein may be a pun on the similarity to ‘arse-nic’ meaning eating so-called-foods of rottage.

    4. Back ca the late-70′s the electronics industry was preparing to shift from silicon-based semiconductors to ‘faster’ gallium-arsenide, but had an unrecognized problem that nuclei of neutron-irradiated Ga-As tend to both shift in the same nuclear-direction, making the product ‘softer’ than Si-based in terms of military-radiation-hardness (a ‘tradeoff’).

    Reply
  53. Ari -  December 5, 2010 - 2:31 pm

    “Put simply, the subtance blocks the ability of certain to reproduce chemicals essential for their survival.”

    The ability of certain whats? An important word is missing here.

    Reply
  54. Josh -  December 5, 2010 - 2:00 pm

    From paragraph four:

    “Put simply, the sub[s]tance blocks the ability of certain [what?] to reproduce chemicals essential for their survival.”

    Come on people, proof read. This is Dictionary.com for crying out loud.

    Reply
  55. ben -  December 5, 2010 - 1:42 pm

    Great article with interesting information, but I couldn’t help but notice the multiple typos. Try reading over a little more carefully in the next article.

    Reply
  56. Nathan Hunter -  December 5, 2010 - 12:19 pm

    The only other time I’ve heard anything, real or fictional, thriving on arsenic are the Chinese dragons. Maybe those Chinese were on to something.

    Reply
  57. Crossark -  December 5, 2010 - 12:19 pm

    Everyone i know is saying it is such a killer alien, but nobody’s confirmed it is an alien, and nobody know if it is harmful past the fact that it thrives on arsenic.

    Reply
  58. Emmie -  December 5, 2010 - 11:55 am

    interesting…. tell me more!

    Reply
  59. ARSENIC PHOSPHATE | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  December 5, 2010 - 11:37 am

    [...] ARSENIC? — or was that a Lemon Phosphate Busha Duda used to drink — We got it from the corner soda-fountain drug store — not from the kitchen sink. — It had nothing to do with old lace — or phosphorus for life; — we’re not sure. — A necessary element of alien life in outer space? — Arsenic blows that out the door. — We hope it’s not another hoax to get additional funding. — NASA wouldn’t do that — Would they? — New Life! Another Poison Pen Pal! — Who could ask for anything more? –>>Rupert L.T.Rhyme [...]

    Reply
  60. Donta -  December 5, 2010 - 11:26 am

    That is something that I would never know. That God for medical science.

    Reply
  61. Jim Rice -  December 5, 2010 - 11:07 am

    Thought ud be interested… :)

    Reply
  62. Robin -  December 5, 2010 - 10:49 am

    HOLY COW, Batman!

    Reply
  63. Defaulty -  December 5, 2010 - 10:43 am

    According to my Chemistry coach, this shouldn’t be that amazing, considering how arsenic is in the same group as phosphorus and nitrogen: two essential elements.

    Reply
  64. Michelle -  December 5, 2010 - 10:18 am

    Amazingly interesting!

    Reply

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