Origins of life researchers develop a new ecological biosignature
by Staff Writers
Santa Fe NM (SPX) May 21, 2021
When scientists hunt for life, they often look for biosignatures, chemicals or phenomena that indicate the existence of present or past life. Yet it isn't necessarily the case that the signs of life on Earth are signs of life in other planetary environments. How do we find life in systems that do not resemble ours?
In groundbreaking new work, a team led by Santa Fe Institute Professor Chris Kempes has developed a new ecological biosignature that could help scientists detect life in vastly different environments. Their work appears as part of a special issue of theBulletin of Mathematical Biology collected in honor of renowned mathematical biologist James D. Murray.
The new research takes its starting point from the idea that stoichiometry, or chemical ratios, can serve as biosignatures. Since "living systems display strikingly consistent ratios in their chemical make-up," Kempes explains, "we can use stoichiometry to help us detect life."
Yet, as SFI Science Board member and contributor, Simon Levin, explains, "the particular elemental ratios we see on Earth are the result of the particular conditions here, and a particular set of macromolecules like proteins and ribosomes, which have their own stoichiometry." How can these elemental ratios be generalized beyond the life that we observe on our own planet?
The group solved this problem by building on two lawlike patterns, two scaling laws, that are entangled in elemental ratios we have observed on Earth. The first of these is that in individual cells, stoichiometry varies with cell size. In bacteria, for example, as cell size increases, protein concentrations decrease, and RNA concentrations increase.
The second is that the abundance of cells in a given environment follows a power-law distribution. The third, which follows from integrating the first and second into a simple ecological model, is that the elemental abundance of particles to the elemental abundance in the environmental fluid is a function of particle size.
While the first of these (that elemental ratios shift with particle size) makes for a chemical biosignature, it is the third finding that makes for the new ecological biosignature. If we think of biosignatures not simply in terms of single chemicals or particles, and instead take account of the fluids in which particles appear, we see that the chemical abundances of living systems manifest themselves in mathematical ratios between the particle and environment. These general mathematical patterns may show up in coupled systems that differ significantly from Earth.
Ultimately, the theoretical framework is designed for application in future planetary missions. "If we go to an ocean world and look at particles in context with their fluid, we can start to ask whether these particles are exhibiting a power-law that tells us that there is an intentional process, like life, making them," explains Heather Graham, Deputy Principal Investigator at NASA's Lab for Agnostic Biosignatures, of which she and Kempes are a part.
To take this applied step, however, we need technology to size-sort particles, which, at the moment, we don't have for spaceflight. Yet the theory is ready, and when the technology lands on Earth, we can send it to icy oceans beyond our solar system with a promising new biosignature in hand.
|The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2024 - 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. All articles labeled "by Staff Writers" include reports supplied to Space Media Network by industry news wires, PR agencies, corporate press officers and the like. Such articles are individually curated and edited by Space Media Network staff on the basis of the report's information value to our industry and professional readership. 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. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Statement Our advertisers use various cookies and the like to deliver the best ad banner available at one time. All network advertising suppliers have GDPR policies (Legitimate Interest) that conform with EU regulations for data collection. By using our websites you consent to cookie based advertising. If you do not agree with this then you must stop using the websites from May 25, 2018. Privacy Statement. Additional information can be found here at About Us.