NASA's New Life Form a Boon for Clean Energy, Toxic Waste Cleanup


Image: NASA

The intertubes were abuzz with the big news from NASA yesterday: Researchers announced they discovered a new kind of life that rearranges all our assumptions about life as we know it (but first they had to apologize that no, it wasn't an alien). This life form, a microbe that substitutes phosphate (heretofore a building block of all life on earth) with toxic arsenic, is truly an amazing discovery. Even more amazing is that the horizon-expanding discovery could be a huge boon to both clean energy and toxic waste cleanup -- it could change both sectors in some pretty revolutionary ways. Here's a video to get you acquainted with the new poison-loving microbe:

And here's how the little guy could benefit the fields of clean energy and toxic waste cleanup:

First up, researchers say that the new bacteria could lead to a much more viable form of ethanol -- an arsenic-based ethanol. Britt Leggitt explains over at Inhabitat:

Phosphorus has been integral to the formation of fertilizers and is part of the reason that ethanol -- which is heavily built on phosphorus -- is currently being phased out as a source of alternative energy. It takes a ton of phosphorous to grow crops that will yield ethanol and phosphorus is becoming scarcer by the minute. We've got a ton of arsenic lying around -- that most of us don't want anywhere near us -- so researchers are expected to get to work trying to figure out if an arsenic-based ethanol could be created. In addition to the possible arsenic-based ethanol being a good alternative fuel, as a crop it is attractive because its unique chemical building blocks would make it unattractive to outside pests -- read: no pesticides or fungicides needed.
Granted, the substitution of arsenic for phosphorus wouldn't likely solve some of the other problems inherent in ethanol cultivation (the water demand, and food scarcity problems engendered in some parts of the world). But it's certainly an interesting option to pursue.

As for the toxic waste cleanup, it's pretty straightforward: Since the microbe actually constructs itself out of arsenic -- a common toxic byproduct found in industrial waste -- loosing the little guys on dump sites or other contaminated areas would theoretically clean them right up. The microbes would simply eat the arsenic.

Because there's nothing more exciting about the discovery of new life than figuring out how to get it to work for us ...

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