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Arsenic-loving bacterium needs phosphorus after all

After 18 months of controversy, the official verdict is in: an arsenic-tolerant bacterium found in California’s Mono Lake cannot live without phosphorus.

In 2010, a group led by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a microbiologist now at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, reported online in Science1 that the Halomonadaceae bacterium GFAJ-1 could include atoms of arsenic instead of phosphorus in crucial biochemicals such as DNA.

The bacteria were discovered thriving in the arsenic-rich sediment of the shallow saline Mono Lake, famed for its appearance on a picture-postcard insert to Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here.

All known forms of life depend on at least six elements: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur. Arsenic has some chemical similarities with phosphorus, but is usually toxic to life, so the suggestion that it could sustain life triggered a storm of questions, as well as criticism about how the find was revealed at an enthusiastic NASA press conference.

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