Is a New Form of Life Really So Alien?

The idea of discovering a new form of life has not only excited astronomers and astrobiologists for decades, but also the wider public. The notion that we are the only example of a successful life form in the galaxy has, for many, seemed like an unlikely statistic, as we discover more and more habitable planetary bodies and hear yet more evidence of life’s ability to survive in extreme conditions. A new essay, Read More →

Could ‘Advanced’ Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?

New scientific research (referenced below) raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe. “We would be better off not meeting them,” concludes the study, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Read More →

Recent Advances in Genetic Research

English: This image shows a DNA molecule that ...

English: This image shows a DNA molecule that is methylated on both strands on the center cytosine. DNA methylation plays an important role for epigenetic gene regulation in development and cancer. The picture shows the crystal structure of a short DNA helix with sequence “accgcCGgcgcc”, which is methylated on both strands at the center cytosine. The structure was taken from the Protein Data Bank (accession number 329D), rendering was performed with VMD and post-processing was done in Photoshop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those of you that read my posts regularly know that I believe the next (substantial) evolution of our species will involve either genetic modification, robotics, or a combination of both (hopefully that statement won’t someday get me fired). So whenever I come across an interesting development happening in genetics research, AI, etc., I like to pass it along on here – even if DNA sequencing and genetics research in general gives me a headache when I try to study it in great detail. Feel free to share your thoughts on this development below.

Read More →

Astrobiologists Discover Life Components in Meteorites…Maybe

New NASA research suggests that creating the building blocks of life might not necessary be as hard as previously assumed. This research means that certain components of those building blocks could have been delivered to Earth in the form of comets and meteorites. The research also advocates the idea that these building blocks could be produced in different manners. This means that certain compounds can be made in either cold or hot environments.

While similar research has been published in years past with inconclusive results, time will tell if this team has gotten it right this time around. I have no doubt these findings will be heavily scrutinized (especially in terms of contamination) as with previous studies – the early Murchison meteorite research comes immediately to mind. For the time being, I’m hopeful but not yet convinced. Either way, this study has merit and is worthy of further examination.

Meteorites contain a large variety of nucleobases, an essential building block of DNA. Artist concept credit: NASA

The Findings:

The NASA Goddard Space Flight’s Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory analyzed a number of meteorite samples that had experienced high temperatures. These particular objects had compounds that were similar to amino acids. These acids are used to make proteins. Previously, it was understood that these compounds could only form at relatively low temperatures. Interestingly enough, the new class of reaction is similar to the type of chemical reaction that was used to process coal into gasoline to overcome fuel shortages during the Second World War.

The original experiments that showed a connection between Fischer Tropsch type reactions and amino acids were preformed a long time ago. Meteorites contain several types of nucleobases and the team eventually wants to search for amino acids in all of the known carbon-rich meteorite groups. They have actually expressed feelings that suggest it would be strange if they didn’t find any further amino acids.

“Although we’ve found amino acids in carbon-rich meteorites before, we weren’t expecting to find them in these specific groups, since the high temperatures they experienced tend to destroy amino acids,” said Dr. Aaron Burton, a researcher in NASA’s Postdoctoral Program stationed at NASA Goddard. “However, the kind of amino acids we discovered in these meteorites indicates that they were produced by a different, high-temperature process as their parent asteroids gradually cooled down.” Burton is lead author of a paper on this discovery that appeared March 9 in Meteoritics and Planetary Science (reference below).

The team believes the majority of the amino acids they found in the 14 meteorites were truly created in space, and not the result of contamination from terrestrial life, for a few reasons. First, the amino acids in life (and in contamination from industrial products) are frequently linked together in long chains, either as proteins in biology or polymers in industrial products. Most of the amino the amino acids discovered in the new research were not bound up in proteins or polymers. In addition, the most abundant amino acids found in biology are those that are found in proteins, but such “proteinogenic” amino acids represent only a small percentage of the amino acids found in the meteorites. Finally, the team analyzed a sample of ice taken from underneath one of the meteorites. This ice had only trace levels of amino acids suggesting the meteorites are relatively pristine.

The experiments showing FTT reactions produce amino acids were performed over 40 years ago. The products have not been analyzed with modern techniques, so the exact distributions of amino acid products have not been determined. The team wants to test FTT reactions in the laboratory using a variety of ingredients and conditions to see if any produce the types of amino acids with the abundances they found in the 14 meteorites.

What are your thoughts? Is it possible that life came about as a result of a meteorite bringing “alien compounds” to Earth?

Reference:

BURTON, A., ELSILA, J., CALLAHAN, M., MARTIN, M., GLAVIN, D., JOHNSON, N., & DWORKIN, J. (2012). A propensity for n-ω-amino acids in thermally altered Antarctic meteorites Meteoritics & Planetary Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1945-5100.2012.01341.x

NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2012, March 9). NASA. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from http://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/features/life-components.html

ResearchBlogging.org

Human Cloning and Space Colonization

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Could cloning and genetic engineering improve our chances of successful space colonization in the future? For example, what if we identified an exoplanet that is capable of sustaining life and sent frozen embryos on a 10,000 year journey to the planet where they would hatch(?) upon reaching the destination planet? Or perhaps genetic engineering will be required so that humans can evolve to survive life in space or on exoplanets (i.e. longevity, adaptability, etc.). Is this something that is worthy of further examination? Let’s briefly examine the process of cloning today and then decide. Read More →