Scientists have stumbled upon a groundbreaking discovery that might hold the key to life beyond Earth. Let’s rewind to the late ’80s when a scientist doodled some calculations on paper. This scientist figured out that turning a chemical called phosphite into phosphate could release enough energy to power a tiny organism. Imagine this microorganism being self-sufficient, not needing sunlight or organic matter for energy like most living things on our planet.

Fast forward to today, and we’ve found an actual microorganism in a sewage treatment plant that does just that. This little guy thrives on turning phosphite into phosphate for its energy needs. Now, let’s not get lost in the scientific jargon. The cool part is that this discovery could help us understand how life could exist in really tough places, maybe even on other planets!

Think of this microorganism as a tiny plant but without the need for sunlight. It’s like a superhero that can make its own energy without depending on regular food. The scientists behind this discovery are like detectives who cracked a long-standing mystery. They found the missing piece of the puzzle—a special enzyme that makes the whole process work.

Team members in the photo (from left to right): Nicolai Müller, David Schleheck and Bernhard Schink | photo University of Konstanz

What’s even more fascinating is that this way of making energy might be as old as dirt—well, almost! About 2.5 billion years old, to be a bit more precise. Back in the day, when the Earth was still cooling down, this unique way of getting energy could have been the go-to survival strategy for tiny life forms.

So, why does all of this matter? Well, it’s not just about understanding our own planet’s history. This discovery gives us clues about how life might have started on Earth. And, it’s like having a secret code to unlock the possibility of life existing in some pretty tough spots, maybe even on planets we haven’t discovered yet!

In simpler terms, this finding is like finding a superhero in the microbial world. It’s a reminder that even the tiniest creatures can teach us big things about the universe and the potential for life beyond our wildest imagination.


University of Konstanz | Zhuqing Mao, Jennifer R. Fleming, et al., AMP-dependent phosphite dehydrogenase, a phosphorylating enzyme in dissimilatory phosphite oxidation. PNAS, November 3, 2023, 120 (45) e2309743120.

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