The origin of life is surely one of the most important questions in biology. How did inanimate molecules give rise to the “endless forms most beautiful” that we see today, and where did this event happen? Some of the most popular theories suggest that life began in a hellish setting, in rocky undersea vents that churn out superheated water from deep within the earth. But a new paper suggests an alternative backdrop, and one that seems like the polar opposite (pun intended) of the hot vents –ice.
Like the vents, frozen fields of ice seem like counter-intuitive locations for the origin of life – they’re hardly a hospitable environment today. But according to James Attwater form the University of Cambridge, ice has the right properties to fuel the rise of “replicator” molecules, which can make copies of themselves, change and evolve.
Read the rest of this post at Not Exactly Rocket Science. And for more about the possibly frigid origins of life—and the implications of that for finding life beyond Earth—check out the DISCOVER feature “Did Life Evolve in Ice?”
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Image: Wikimedia Commons
We know that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is often strapped for cash. But what if the aliens out there trying to reach us, rather than being far superior technologically and beaming signals in all directions, are actually starving scientists, too?
In a pair of papers in Astrobiology, three members of the Benford family—Gregory, an astrophysicist and sci-fi author; James, president of Microwave Sciences; and James’ son Dominic, of NASA—ponder the possibility of E.T. trying to reach us on a budget, and say that we might have to revise the way we hitherto have watched.
Aliens wishing to communicate would probably broadcast at frequencies between 1 and 10 gigahertz, where there is less astronomical background noise than in other wavebands. Most SETI projects tune in to the “cosmic water hole” waveband between 1.42 and 1.72 gigahertz. The reasoning goes that alien astronomers might expect earthly scientists to be looking there anyway as this is the frequency of radiation emitted by interstellar hydrogen and hydroxyl clouds [New Scientist].
Want to know what early or extraterrestrial life might look like? You might try looking at Earth’s extremes: the coldest, highest, and deepest places on our planet. One unmanned research vehicle just tried the last of these strategies, and took samples from a hydrothermal vent plume 16,000 feet under the sea–about 2,000 feet deeper than the previous record-holding vent.
A research team led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and including scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory studied three hydrothermal vents, found along an underwater ridge in the Caribbean called the Mid-Cayman Rise. They published their findings yesterday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Hydrothermal vents are usually found in spots where the Earth’s tectonic are moving away from each other, creating a weird zone of raw chemistry. A mixture of hot vent fluids and cold deep-ocean water form plumes, which can contain dissolved chemicals, minerals, and microbes. Instead of searching the entire 60-mile-long ridge with the vehicle, the team scouted for chemicals from the plume to zero-in on the vents.
“Every time you get a hydrothermal system, it’s wet and hot, and you get water and rocks interacting. Wherever this happens on the seafloor, life takes advantage,” said geophysicist Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “Every time you find seawater interacting with volcanic rock, there’s weird and wonderful life associated with it.” [Wired]
If there were life on the Saturnian moon of Titan, the thinking goes, it would have to inhabit pools of methane or ethane at a cool -300 degrees Fahrenheit, and without the aid of water. While scientists don’t know just what that life would look like, they can predict what effects such tiny microbes would have on Titan’s atmosphere. That’s why researchers from the Cassini mission are excited now: They’ve found signatures that match those expectations. It’s far from proof of life on Titan, but it leaves the door wide open to the possibility.
In 2005, NASA’s Chris McKay put forth a possible scenario for life there: Critters could breathe the hydrogen gas that’s abundant on Titan, and consume a hydrocarbon called acetylene for energy. The first of two studies out recently, published in the journal Icarus, found that something—maybe life, but maybe something else—is using up the hydrogen that descends from Titan’s atmosphere to its surface:
“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” says Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who authored a paper published in the journal Icarus [Popular Science].
Erring on the side of caution, the scientists suggest that life is but one explanation for this chemical oddity. Perhaps some unknown mineral on Titan acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction of hydrogen and carbon to form methane, and that’s what accounts for the vanishing hydrogen. (Normally, the two wouldn’t combine fast enough under the cold conditions on Titan to account for the anomaly.) That would be pretty cool, though not as much of a jolt as Titanic life.
In a half-century of hunting, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has turned up nary a whisper from E.T. But for renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, the non-success of SETI and others who hope to contact alien life might be for the best: Aliens, he says, might not like us.
Hawking caused waves with this suggestion in his new Discovery Channel special, which debuted last night. He has long believed that extraterrestrial life exists, simply because of the sheer vastness of the universe. While much of what’s out there might be simple microbial life, there may indeed be new civilizations far more advanced than our own. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be friendly.
Said Hawking: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach” [The Times].
Trinidad, the larger island of the Caribbean duo Trinidad and Tobago, is home to Pitch Lake. This 100-acre pool of hot liquid asphalt is the largest of its kind on our planet, but microbiologist Steven Hallam thought it could tell us something about another world: the Saturnian moon of Titan. If anything could live in the toxic stew of Lake Pitch, he thought, perhaps there’s hope for the hydrocarbon lakes and rivers of that distant moon. He found that the earthly lake teems with life. “Water is scarce in the lake and certainly below the levels normally thought of as a threshold for life to exist,” he says. “Yet on average, each gram of ‘goo’ in the lake contains tens of millions of living cells” [Australian Broadcasting Corporation].
Microorganisms can live the far reaches of the planet, in extreme temperatures and pressures, and in some cases even without oxygen. But now scientists say they have found the first multicellular organisms inhabiting an anoxic environment. In other words: They’ve found the first animals living without oxygen.
They belong to the group called loriciferans, a phylum of creatures that live in marine sediment. About a millimeter long, they look something like a half-jellyfish, half-crab. The beasts live in conditions that would kill every other known animal. As well as lacking oxygen, the sediments are choked with salt and swamped with hydrogen sulphide gas [New Scientist].
Roberto Danovaro and his colleagues, who documented this find in BMC Biology, had been searching the salty, oxygen-free depths of the Mediterranean Sea down below 10,000 feet for life. When previous searches turned up animal bodies, he says, researchers wrote them off, thinking they had fallen to those depths from oxygenated waters closer to the surface. But Danovaro says his team recovered living loriciferans from the area, including ones with eggs.
There’s a lot more going on beneath those huge sheets of Antarctic ice than you might think. NASA researchers say they uncovered a major surprise in December: The team drilled an eight-inch hole and stuck a video camera 600 feet down, hoping to observe the underbelly of the thick ice sheet. To their amazement, a curious critter swam into view and clung to the video camera’s cable [Washington Post]. The three-inch crustacean in their video (and pictured in the image here) is a Lyssianasid amphipod, a relative of a shrimp. The team also retrieved what they believe to be a tentacle from a jellyfish.
“We were operating on the presumption that nothing’s there,” said NASA ice scientist Robert Bindschadler, who will be presenting the initial findings and a video at an American Geophysical Union meeting Wednesday. “It was a shrimp you’d enjoy having on your plate” [AP]. Indeed, researchers previously believed that nothing more complex than microbes could live in such a hostile place, beneath an ice sheet in total darkness. While complex organisms have shown up before in retreating glaciers, this seems to be the first time any have been found 600 feet down below an intact sheet of ice.
Five years ago, the Cassini spacecraft first detected plumes of water ice emanating from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, making the moon one of the best hopes for finding life somewhere else in the solar system. Astronomers have argued over whether or not those jets come from a subsurface ocean of liquid water, but new findings by Cassini provide evidence that water could indeed be sloshing around beneath the frozen surface of this small moon.
During a 2008 pass through the plumes, the spacecraft found negatively charged water molecules. Back home this short-lived type of ion is produced where water is moving, such as in waterfalls or crashing ocean waves [Scientific American]. Researcher Andrew Coates led the study, which is coming out in the journal Icarus.
If you’ve been expecting to hear from a far-off alien civilization, don’t hold your breath, suggests Frank Drake, the founder of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)–the odds of ET phoning Earth may be diminishing. And your digital TV might well be to blame.
Speaking at a meeting of the Royal Society in London, Drake said that digital transmissions are effectively “gagging” the planet. In the fast-fading analog age, TV and radio signals transmitted around the world escaped into space. At present, the Earth is surrounded by a 50 light year-wide ”shell” of radiation from analogue TV, radio and radar transmissions, he said [The Telegraph]. Those signals reach distant stars, which means that if someone is home at any of those stars, they could heard us.