Wednesday, December 01, 2010

ET v. Shadow Life

A media advisory note posted by NASA yesterday about a news conference 'to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life' loosed the cats of speculation on the pigeons of improbability. Had NASA received a signal from passing ETs? Spotted signs of life on an exoplanet? Discovered that some kind of photosynthetic process was depleting hydrogen, acetylene and ethane in Titan's atmosphere? Found a fossil on Mars? Calmer voices, having checked out the research pedigrees of the scientists involved, suggested something more Earth-bound, but potentially very exciting: the discovery of microoorganisms with an alternative, arsenic-based metabolism: hints at a shadow biosphere.

Why is this important? Well, because they are neighbours in the periodic table, arsenic shares many chemical properties as phosphorous, and phosphorous is an essential element for life as we know it: amongst other things, it is at the heart of molecules that store and transfer energy, and helps to form the backbone of RNA and DNA. Arsenic is a poison to many organisms because it interferes with phosphorous biochemistry, but although the bonds it forms are weaker, it could also substitute for phosphorous; in other words, there may be organisms with biochemistries based on arsenic rather than phosphorous, forming a shadow biosphere in parallel with our own. Several of the scientists mentioned in NASA's note have been searching for signatures of that shadow biosphere like that, in places like Mono Lake, California, which have higher than average concentrations of arsenic. If they've found evidence for it, there are all kinds of implications, not least that life may have evolved more than once on Earth. And that's genuinely exciting.

By the way, I published a short story about searching for a shadow biosphere last year. 'Shadow Life' is still online, at Discover magazine's site. Read it now, before science overtakes it tomorrow!

3 Comments:

Blogger Larry said...

Fascinating stuff! And let's not forget that during the early period of this world of ours Oxygen was a poisonous gas!

December 01, 2010 6:31 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...

I read a study that showed that tea prefers more aluminium and very low phosphorus when fed hydroponically. No-one seems to have tested where it is going in the plant.

December 03, 2010 1:15 AM  
Anonymous Pat said...

Good short story, thanks.

December 03, 2010 1:16 AM  

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