The Universe Still Amazes

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 2, 2010

I love surprises. Here is a big one:

If only Carl Sagan were still with us. We can just hear him saying “sextillions and sextillions.”

There’s word from some scientists today that there may be three times more stars in the universe than was previously thought — and many, many planets that could support life.

If they’re right, it means there could be as many as 300 sextillion (a number we weren’t familiar with, to be honest) stars. Want to write that down? It’s a 3 followed by 23 zeroes. Like this:

300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Not big enough in terms of news? Well then, try this on for size:

A strange, salty lake in California has yielded an equally strange bacterium that thrives on arsenic and redefines life as we know it, researchers reported on Thursday.

The bacteria do not merely eat arsenic — they incorporate the toxic element directly into their DNA, the researchers said.

The finding shows just how little scientists know about the variety of life forms on Earth, and may greatly expand where they should be looking for life on other planets and moons, the NASA-funded team said.

“We have cracked open the door to what is possible for life elsewhere in the universe,” Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and U.S. Geological Survey, who led the study, told a news conference.

[. . .]

The GFAJ-1 strain of the Halomonadaceae grew when arsenic was in the water and when phosphorus was in the water, but not when both were taken away. And it grew even with “double whammy” of arsenic.

“It grew and it thrived and that was amazing. Nothing should have grown,” Wolfe-Simon told a news conference.

“We know that some microbes can ‘breathe’ arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic.”

Paul Davies of NASA and Arizona State said the bacterium is not a new life form.

“It can grow with either phosphorous or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly ‘alien’ life belonging to a different tree of life with a separate origin,” he said.

If none of this blows your mind, then there is nothing I can do to help.

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