Why Microbes Matter
Houston - Sept. 4, 2001
It is difficult to speculate where this new biology may lead. We may learn to apply universal principles of biology to better understand our own type of life and to do such things as develop artificial cells, tissues and organs that might be better suited for certain purposes as compared to those that can be engineered based only on terrestrial principles.
As a potential location for our second datum of biology, our neighboring planet Mars once again beckons. The possibility that the labeled release experiment (LR), carried to Mars in 1976 aboard the two Viking landers, actually discovered microorganisms is now under serious discussion by scientists.
New instruments are being developed to search the planet, not only for fossils but also for current living organisms. Assuming that there are life forms on Mars, a thorough examination of them will tell us whether or not we have discovered an entirely different type of life.
It may turn out that on Mars we discover nothing more than another example of our own kind of life. It could be that our type of life is so tenacious that it spreads easily through space, riding inside meteorites and comets.
Perhaps then, life did not originate on our planet at all but was only seeded from elsewhere. This possibility, called panspermia, has gained some support in recent years because of studies suggesting that chunks of rock can be catapulted from one planet and deposited on another without being heated to a point that would kill any hitchhiking microorganisms.
If microorganisms have survived transfers between Earth and Mars, it could mean that the two biospheres have a common origin. If this turns out to be the case, it would not negate the possibility of eventually discovering a type of life that has originated independently of that of Earth. But it would move the search for our second datum to a more distant location, perhaps to Europa, or to other star systems.
There are intermediate possibilities too. Perhaps panspermia within the Solar System has occurred with some early type of protolife, based on RNA and a relatively crude molecular decoding system, as the transferred agent.
In such a case, different biospheres might all use the same genetic material but differ from one another in how their genetic codes evolved. This would be the equivalent of having different languages that use the same or similar alphabets.
There are many possibilities and any of them can potentially lead to advances in biotechnology and medicine while, at the same time, bringing us closer to understanding our origins.
In order to find out whether the origin of life is frequent in the universe, whether panspermia is frequent, or whether both of these phenomena occur frequently, we need to have a strong Martian exploration program.
If life is extant on Mars, we need to isolate actual organisms. If we can do this then the next step would be to determine whether or not they have DNA.
If they use something other than DNA as genetic material then we will need to find out what it is and how it works. If they do use DNA then we will need to sequence it and determine how much the organisms have in common with their terrestrial counterparts.
So, why might Martian microorganisms matter? If Mars is a living planet then its biosphere probably consists entirely of microorganisms, as ours mostly does - we and the rest of the animal kingdom, along with the plant and fungi kingdoms, are rare exceptions on Earth, which is mostly a microbial world.
If the molecular basis of Martian life differs enough from the terrestrial equivalent to constitute a second datum for life, then the microorganisms of Mars might someday become just as important to biology as are all of the species of terrestrial life put together!
Boulder - August 27 2001
What actually ended the Permian Period some 251 million years ago? Most Earth scientists think gradual sea fall, climate change, oceanic anoxia, and volcanism were the causes. But that's not so. A group of geologists working in southern China found evidence that it was an asteroid or a comet that smacked our planet, exploded, and then caused the most severe biotic crisis in the history of life on Earth.
Advancing Our Understanding of Life
Washington - Aug 21, 2001
Over the past two decades, advances in a number of scientific disciplines have helped us better understand the nature and evolution of life on Earth. These scientific developments also have helped lay the foundation for astrobiology, opening up new possibilities for the existence of life in the Solar System and beyond.
Keep It Clean Says NASA
El Segundo - August 8, 2001
The Aerospace Corporation has landed a follow-on effort with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to continue researching the effectiveness of spacecraft cleaning methods used by NASA in missions to planets and moons that could harbor life.
New Evidence Of Living Bacteria From Space
Cardiff - July 29, 2001
Claims of evidence of living bacterial cells entering the Earth's upper atmosphere from space has come from a joint project involving Indian and UK scientists.
Survival Of The Flattest
Pasadena - July 23, 2001
Darwinian dogma states that in the marathon race of evolution, the genotype that replicates the fastest, wins. But now scientists at the California Institute of Technology say that's true, but when you factor in another basic process of evolution, that of mutations, it's often the tortoise that defeats the hare.
|The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2016 - Space Media Network. All websites are published in Australia and are solely subject to Australian law and governed by Fair Use principals for news reporting and research purposes. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA news reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement All images and articles appearing on Space Media Network have been edited or digitally altered in some way. Any requests to remove copyright material will be acted upon in a timely and appropriate manner. Any attempt to extort money from Space Media Network will be ignored and reported to Australian Law Enforcement Agencies as a potential case of financial fraud involving the use of a telephonic carriage device or postal service.