Davis: For our next trick, we’ll turn biology on its head

Oh arsenic, you devilish element, favorite poison of assassins and bitter wives everywhere. I used to love how deadly you were. You made stories easy; if someone had to die, you were there to kill them. You were nature's heavy metal supervillain, the Lex Luthor to life itself. And now, well, you just got beaten by bacteria.

Specifically, arsenic has replaced phosphorus in the chemical composition of some lab-grown bacteria in Menlo Park; the California one, not Edison's invention factory in New Jersey. Phosphorous is a key element in the composition of DNA, and arsenic, one box away on the periodic table, shares many of phosphorous' chemical traits. This is actually what makes arsenic such a good poison – it gets in the cells and screws everything up, sort of like when you put diesel fuel in a Ferrari. We've all done that, right?

The researchers were able to slowly wean the bacteria off of the phosphorous and replace it with arsenic, essentially broadening the concept of life as we know it. There are six "Elements of Life" which have, until now, been considered essential to the maintenance of vitality. Phosphorous is one of them. The other super-friends are carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and hydrogen. Oh, that's right: we can't forget arsenic.

This is one of those experiments that could conceivably change the world the way pasteurization, the incandescent bulb and the smallpox vaccine did. Life, as we understand it, just became a much more fluid concept. It's like painting in black and white until someone shows you red and blue and then you figure out purple: there could be life out there that is nothing like us in any way, at all.

Science has proven that one of the most volatile poisons known to mankind can also be a fundamental building block of life. What's next? Remember Alien? In that movie, the aliens were composed of silicon and it seemed ridiculous because, well, silicon isn't carbon, and all life on Earth is carbon-based. But hey, now we have bacteria whose DNA is highly poisonous to every other animal on Earth! Why not have giant man-eating silicon aliens with two mouths?

This discovery may be highly beneficial to mankind. Arsenic-munching bacteria can be introduced to wells in areas with high arsenic concentrations, essentially creating potable water by eating all the poison.

Perhaps, in the future, we will be able to modify other bacteria. Global warming still a problem? Let's make some bugs that crave the sweet taste of carbon dioxide and fart oxygen, like trees on steroids. Smog eaters, oil drinkers, sludge munchers; the appetites of the bacteria can be harnessed. We could even see the day when, conceivably, a bacterium eats garbage and creates heat. Heat can be turned into electricity; we would have clean, recycled electricity, courtesy of the ever-hungry microbe.

Every once in a while, we come across something that might actually be worth throwing buckets of money at. This is one of those times. Congress, if you're reading this, I urge you: fund the hungry bugs.