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Geek-Up[12.03.2010]: Halomonadaceae Bacteria and the Return of Quark Gluon Plasma

December 3, 2010 - 4:59pm


As a fellow geek, you probably heard NASA’s big news yesterday.

If not, here’s a recap: It was once assumed that all life on Earth, from humans and giraffes to scorpions and plankton, are all based on six essential elements (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous). However, a study led by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey has revealed a bacteria (a Halomonadaceae bacteria called GFAJ-1) in California’s Mono Lake that has replaced phosphorous with its toxic neighbor on the periodic table – arsenic.

A number of collaborators worked together to complete this ground-breaking study, including NASA Astrobiology Institute, Arizona State University, Duquesne University and the Department’s own Lawrence Livermore and SLAC Accelerator National Labs.

At Lawrence Livermore, scientists Jennifer Pett-Ridge and Peter Weber used the lab’s NanoSIMS facility, which analyzes elements and isotopes down to the 50-nanometer scale, to identify concentrations of arsenic in the bacteria’s cells and extracted DNA. Pett-Ridge explained, “We found that arsenic was higher in the cells than in the environment outside of the cells.”

And at SLAC, scientist Sam Webb led efforts to apply the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) to this research. The team first ran SSRL’s X-ray beam over the bacteria sample to see where arsenic is located in the cells and determine how it got there. Next, the team used the X-ray in the spectroscopic mode, which identifies the types and locations of specific atoms, and found that the arrangement of arsenic, oxygen and carbon atoms mimicked the way phosphorous is arranged in typical strands of DNA.

Read more on Lawrence Livermore’s and SLAC’s contributions to this new discovery here and here.

In other elemental news, CERN, the international laboratory for particle physics, recently announced the findings of its Large Hadron Collider’s heavy-ion experiments. Using the ATLAS, ALICE and CMS detectors, these experiments have given researchers a look into the matter that may have existed in the very first moments of the Universe.

Today’s matter could not have existed in the hot, turbulent environment of these first moments. Rather, these particles floated in a quark gluon plasma. As the Universe evolved, this quarks and gluons bound together to create protons, neutrons and finally, the elements of the periodic table.

CMS spokesperson Guido Tonelli discussed this ongoing investigation, “It is truly amazing to be looking, albeit on a microscopic scale, all the conditions and state of matter that existed at the dawn of time….The challenge is now to put together all possible studies that could lead us to a much better understanding of the properties of this new, extraordinary state of matter.” Data taking on these experiments will continue through December 6. Check out below displays of the heavy ion collisions from ALICE and learn more about these experiments here.

Events recorded by the ALICE experiment from the first lead ion collisions,
at a centre-of-mass energy of 2.76 TeV per nucleon pair.
Images from CERN. Find more here.