An Interview With GFAJ-1, the Arsenic-Eating Bacterium

Today NASA announced the discovery of a bacterium, called GFAJ-1, that can use arsenic in place of phosphorus. GFAJ-1 has graciously agreed to do an interview with us.

GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic
NASA photo of GFAJ-1 (Image Credit: Jodi Switzer Blum)

Unlikely Explanations: Let me start with the one question that’s on everyone’s mind. No other life form on Earth can use — or even tolerate — arsenic the way you do. Are you from outer space?
GFAJ-1: No, I’m from California. A lot of people confuse the two.

Unlikely Explanations: Thriving on arsenic the way you do is a major accomplishment. How did you do it?
GFAJ-1: It was a slow process that occurred over many generations. I won’t lie — initially, my family was as intolerant of arsenic as anyone else. But then arsenic started moving into the neighborhood, and we realized we’d have to adapt somehow.

Unlikely Explanations: Was that difficult?
GFAJ-1: At times it was. My family has always tried to live by the adage “when life gives you arsenic, make lemonade”. That actually doesn’t work — you just get poisonous lemonade — but eventually one of my ancestors came up with the idea of using arsenic to make DNA, RNA, and other proteins instead. That was the turning point.

Unlikely Explanations: How have you been dealing with all the publicity following NASA’s big announcement today?
GFAJ-1: It’s been pretty overwhelming, but mostly positive. One thing I wasn’t expecting was all the product endorsement offers. Some of them make sense (I don’t want to give too much away, but a major automobile manufacturer has approached me about creating a “GFAJ-1 Edition” alternative fuel vehicle). Some seem a little ill-advised (“Acme Brand Rat Poison — it’s not just for breakfast anymore”), and some are downright offensive.

Unlikely Explanations: Offensive?
GFAJ-1: I will not endorse Purell.

Unlikely Explanations: But other than that, the response has been pretty positive, right?
GFAJ-1: Most people are curious and supportive. I have been getting hate mail from a group calling itself the National Phosphorous Council, though.

Unlikely Explanations: Hate mail? What does it say?
GFAJ-1 : Mostly complaints about my “arsenic-based lifestyle” being unnatural. The latest looks like they wrote “It’s carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorous, not carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and Steve”, then crossed out “Steve” and wrote in “arsenic”. I don’t really understand that one, but it seems kind of hostile.

Unlikely Explanations: Wow.
GFAJ-1: The thing is, I don’t hate phosphorus; I treat it the same way I treat arsenic. And I don’t go around berating other life forms for their phosphorus dependence. Live and let live is what I always say. Phosphorus, arsenic — it’s all good.

Unlikely Explanations: Thank you so much for coming by. What’s next on the agenda for the world’s most famous bacterium?
GFAJ-1: Thank you for having me. Honestly, today has been such a whirlwind of activity that all I want to do tonight is unwind with my favorite movie, The Andromeda Strain.

This was my first celebrity interview, so I hope I didn’t leave anything out. Did I? Are there any questions you’d like GFAJ-1 to answer?

Update: xkcd’s take on this is hilarious.

7 thoughts on “An Interview With GFAJ-1, the Arsenic-Eating Bacterium

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