Thursday, December 2, 2010

It's Life, Jim: But Not As We Know It!

It's life, Jim. But not as we know it.

It is one of the all time classic Star Trek episodes, where the intrepid crew (why is it that all the senior officers were always on the planet at the same time?) were investigating the deaths of miners in the tunnels below a remote colony. They discover a life form based on Silicon, instead of Carbon.

I just loved that concept. Along with the first SF short I read where the aliens breathed Chlorine gas instead of Oxygen, it really stimulated my imagination.

Old Spock ended up doing a mind-meld with the strange rock-creature ("Pain! Pain! They are destroying my children!), and they end up making friends and fixing up the creature with cement mix, then the little rock-creature's children were free to secrete their acid in peace.

The background theory for the Star Trek episode was that as Carbon and Silicon are right above/below each other on the periodic table, and have a similar versatility in terms of available bonding sites (i.e. 4), so they could form analogue molecules in a living organisms.

Yesterday, NASA researchers discovered an actual biological substitution along the same the lines. The six basic building blocks of life on Earth are Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus and Sulfur.

Researchers studying Mono Lake in California (pictured above) discovered an organism - GTAJ-1 - a member of the Gammaproteobacteria group, that substitutes Arsenic for Phosphorus in its cell components. Read the article here. This is pretty interesting as for most life forms, Arsenic is a highly toxic chemical, whereas for this little sucker Arsenic is vital to its DNA and RNA and other mechanisms of life.

Maybe someone exploring the depths of the ocean will find Spock's rock-creature? Can't wait to find out.

Has anyone else come across any weird life forms recently? (And I'm not talking about in your refrigerator:))

15 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris,

My husband keeps finding fascinating science articles on the web and making me read them.

http://singularityhub.com/

They keep getting weirder and weirder.

Jason Cordova said...

I was hoping that they would say something about suspected life on one of Jupiter's moons that are silicon based. Ah well, such is my luck it's in a lake I used to water ski and swim in...

...I'm probably infested with them. Great.

MataPam said...

I’ve been spectating on the edges of the Nature/Nurture, Biology vs Culture wars in Homo Sapiens. It’s very strange, especially when Culture wins so hugely that Biology is tossed out the window. It’s terrifying when you realize they have both lost.

We have an amazingly unhealthy populous for the high quality food and medical care available. But a large portion of the people think food comes in boxes, cans and bags with directions written on it, else they do without. I astonished my dental hygienist by mentioning making my own dressing for the Thanksgiving Turkey. She made me repeat the recipe while she wrote it down.

Scary. Don’t little girls learn basic cooking in the kitchen helping their mothers?

Terrifying. I’m relearning gardening, as I realized this was a skill lacking from my tool box.

What if the nutjobs are right? What if we had a nuclear war, a big meteor strike, a deadly influenza pandemic.

Is the human race doomed because the starving survivors couldn’t find a working microwave?

What we're doing now is not life as we used to know it

C Kelsey said...

I read an article yesterday detailing the discovery of a new species of pseudoscorpion in Yosemite national park. The creature has the body of a spider but the claws of a scorpion. The claws are apparently venomous. The creature also is blind since it's a cave dweller.

The pseudoscorpion wasn't quite as interesting as the species of spider I read about earlier in the year that appeared to be vegetarian...

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Rowena. Looks like an interesting site. I'll add it to my browsing list.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jason. A little bit of arsenic never hurt anyone ARGH!!!!

Well . . . there was that ancient Greek medical theory that a small amount of a poison was actually beneficial to the body.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. The thing that gets me is now much of our working knowledge base has now passed into the electronic storage realm.

What happens if we get some freak solar activity for a few months that wipes all the magnetic storage on the planet? There is about 40yrs of science and technology gone - and the systems that we once had are long gone. Now that would be choas!

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Chris. That report of course failed to mention the barrels of radioactive waste that had been dumped in the cave. . . jPerhaps a few wayward wilderness campers have spent the night there and developed superhuman powers:)

MataPam said...

Chris, it doesn't even take a loss of the physical records to lose knowledge. My dad was an aerospace engineer during the heyday of the Moon missions, and laid off thereafter.

Ten years later the same company rehired him. He was apprehensive, thought he'd be so out of date . . . No, he was the instant expert. He said the eager young scientists had all these great ideas, and apparently no idea how to find the ten or twenty year old studies in the library, exploring that same "new" idea.

I'm afraid we're going to find ourselves repeating a whole lot of technical advancements simply because the people who know all about them have retired or died, without proper apprenticeships to prepare the next generation to carry on from where we are now.

It's that culture thing, getting in the way, again. A kid right out of college with a degree isn't an assistant, he's an engineer.

Eep! What is THAT!

Homo Egotist. Homo Modern. Homo I-know-more-than-that-old-geezer.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. That same phenomenon seem to reoccur in all of the engineering discipines. It blows me away what work has been done - and the level of mathematics - hundreds of years ago. At the same time people keep redesigning and re-evaluating the same 'new' technologies all over again. Scary really.

C Kelsey said...

Matapam... I've been to Huntsville Alabama multiple times and seen the Saturn V rocket up close. Did you know that we no longer have the capability to build that marvel of engineering? All the knowledge to build that super rocket has retired or passed away. Knowledge seems so fleeting sometimes...

MataPam said...

Oh, we could build a Saturn V. Just copy it. Mind you we wouldn't know why of it, but . . .

I've read several takes on "ancient spacecraft, run by rote (or Rites)" Scary to see how it could happen.

Mike said...

Drat -- I forgot the name. The other night, the TV show had a bit about this gorgeous little sea critter. I think it's related to sea horses. But this one -- it had several little branches with fans at the ends. My wife looked at it and said, "That's a plant, isn't it?" And it did look like a strangely regular piece of seaweed or something, but brightly colored. Fabulous little critter.

Dave Freer said...

Sea Dragon, Mike?
Some of the most fascinating bits out of biology, Chris, have to be the symbiotic species, which are often so in our faces we don't realise they're WEIRD (lichen springs to mind). I'm of the opinion that animal life may in fact be the product of symbiosis.

Mike said...

Yes, that's it. Cute!