The Big Lie of Weird Life

December 3, 2010

Much is being made today about NASA’s impending ‘weird life’ announcement, the discovery of a life form that isn’t built from the same stuff as everything else. Unfortunately out of ignorance and a desire to get hits and boost advertising revenue most of the reportage has the facts or at least the spirit of the discovery wrong.

While mildly interesting, the discovery is largely academic, and not all that surprising. Sure, it could suggest life existing elsewhere could more easily adapt to available chemistry, but I doubt few exobiologists would have supposed otherwise.

All that was announced was that a known bacteria was able to thrive in an environment where one of the fundamental building blocks of life (phosphorous) was in short supply, and another, arsenic, was offered in the environment as a substitute. Arsenic is a similar molecule, same column on the period chart, which means it bonds similarly. And a scientist discovered that this bacteria was able to use arsenic instead of phosphorous to build its cells, DNA, etc.

The life is still Earth-like, still very familiar cells building themselves from very familiar DNA. This discovery is the equivalent of a car designer proving you can build a car body out of fiberglass instead of steel. Interesting, useful, good to know, but at the end of the day it’s still a car, it hasn’t become a space ship.

Exobiologists inside and outside of NASA have long theorized, and most likely expect, that life evolving on other worlds would be fundamentally different. And no doubt we will one day find such life, even if we don’t immediately recognize it.  Perhaps it is already here, perhaps it us, or perhaps it hides within us or within this particular bacterial.  The proof of extraterrestrial origins may lie in the used or unused portions of the DNA we’re only just beginning to map and understand.  (For those who wish their mind blown, I suggest reading about non-coding regions of DNA, formerly known as “junk DNA”, which are thought to include remnants of ancient viruses, abandoned biological abilities, and more.  It is in these non-coding regions we may ultimately find the best proof of our origins.)

The announcement from my former employer was a disappointment to the many who misunderstood it to be something more. To my mind it certainly paled in comparison to the far more significant announcement made in 1996 when we found evidence of life in a Martian meteorite that fell to Earth. I well remember when my colleague “Bernie” came into my office and excitedly told me that they’d scheduled a press conference to announce possible ancient life on Mars and that Goldin was behind it.  You don’t forget a moment like that!  (I think Bernie was wearing a red tie and tan pants, and I was wearing a tie my dad had gotten me a few years before for job interviews, it had paisleys on it.)  I jumped on my terminal and sure enough I found the notice by Goldin and the scientists, and an abstract for the research.  I kept waiting to hear Goldin or someone from PA back off the announcement which was still a few days off, add a few more caveats to what was being disclosed.  To my surprise the press conference went off just as planned.  We were all excited, newly emboldened for the missions to Mars which would follow.  It was all the talk around our center for days if not weeks, and I doubt this recent announcement is having that sort of impact.

One reader of this blog alerted me to Richard C. Hoagland’s recent statements about the announcement where he apparently suggested this was a step in a secret agenda of “disclosure”.  Given the reduced significance of this new announcement, relative to the one 15 years ago, I just can’t see it that way.

John

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