Flashback: NASA Agency That Discovered New Life Was Subject to Severe Budget Cuts Under Bush

This afternoon, NASA’s Astrobiology Institute revealed a fairly breathtaking finding: the discovery of what is essentially another form of life. Geobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon found bacteria in Mono Lake, California that can live without phosphorus, instead sometimes using arsenic. All life on earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur, but these bacteria are instead made of arsenic, something previously thought impossible. It even has a DNA blueprint that can contain arsenic, instead of phosphorus, meaning they are essentially a different form of life than anything else that exists on earth.

This discovery not only changes our current definition of “life,” but also significantly expands the possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe. NASA explains:

The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.

This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth…. The results of this study will inform ongoing research in many areas, including the study of Earth’s evolution, organic chemistry, biogeochemical cycles, disease mitigation and Earth system research. These findings also will open up new frontiers in microbiology and other areas of research.

The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction,” said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “Until now a life form using arsenic as a building block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono Lake.”

It is important to note that NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, which produced these amazing findings, is surviving despite falling victim to the Republican war on science. Under President George W. Bush, the department saw its funding reduced by half. The cuts were so drastic that many young astrobiologists faced tough decisions about leaving the field entirely:

Astrobiology at NASA has been hit especially hard by the budget cuts. NASA astrobiology funding has declined 50% over the last 2 years, and funding isn’t likely to be restored anytime soon. “These cuts have already resulted in major reductions in programs that fund graduate students and postdocs,” says Michael Mumma, principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology in Greenbelt, Maryland. Mumma says he tries to protect the young people as much as possible, but “sometimes you just can’t renew a student or postdoc position when the money simply isn’t there.” Mumma is seeing many young astrobiologists reaching decision points about leaving the field. [...]

Another young researcher, who asked to remain anonymous, says that astrobiology is “dead in the water.” After years of working on flagship missions at a major NASA centers, she tells the students she mentors not to “go into anything related to NASA because it’s too difficult and unstable.” She switched from planetary science to astrobiology 4 years ago, just before the budget cuts started. “I’m seriously thinking about doing something else with my life, maybe starting a business. I don’t know what yet.” She hasn’t given up on science completely. “I’m a good scrounger, so I’m hoping to be able to scrounge up some money.”

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the young scientist who made these discoveries, apparently persisted in the face of these cuts. One wonders what other discoveries have been set back by the Republican war on science. Just today, The Hill reported that the Bush-era prohibition on stem-cell research may soon return if Congress doesn’t take action; the delays have already had destructive effects on researchers.

ThinkProgress / By George Zornick

Posted at December 3, 2010, 2:58am

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