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.

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