I for one welcome our new ant overlords

By Phil Plait | June 1, 2009 7:00 am

It’s rare you get to use that quotation in perfect context… but it’ll be clear in a sec why.

One piece of the Tagish Lake meteorite

The Tagish Lake meteorite is a fantastic scientific specimen. In 2000, a brilliant fireball was seen over Canada, and soon thereafter several fragments of the meteorite were found sitting on top of the ice of the frozen Tagish Lake in British Columbia. The beauty of this find is that the chunks of extraterrestrial material were untouched by human hands and found relatively unmixed with earthly material. This made it a pristine example of conditions in space, and an object of intensive study by scientists.

The BBC news has just reported that the meteorite contains an unusually high level of formic acid compared to other meteorites. That’s interesting! Formic acid is an organic compound, a carbon-based acid (formula CH2O2). It also can be used to convert uracil to thymine. These are nucleobases in RNA and DNA, respectively, and it’s possible formic acid helped along the RNA molecules used by life in a primitive Earth to become DNA. I don’t know how likely that is, but it’s interesting.

We’ve known that meteorites can contain complex organic molecules, including amino acids, and it’s speculated that meteoric bombardment of young Earth may have given our planet the ingredients it needed to get life started. Whether formic acid in meteorites helped or not is not clear; formic acid forms easily enough on Earth without us getting pummeled by space rocks.

In fact, formic acid is found in ant stings (the name comes from the Latin formica, or ant). And thus the title of this post (it was that or "Shoot the antennae! They’re helpless without them!", a quotation I’ll leave it to my readers to identify). So we know it’s easy to make. But still, it’s a wondrous thing to see the building blocks of life literally falling on us from space. That means that these ingredients we need are common in the solar system, and this implies perhaps that life itself forms with alacrity given the right conditions. And we know that planets form with gusto around other stars, too.

How common is life in space? We still don’t know. But maybe soon we will.

Tip o’ the giant ant thorax to Wil. Yes, Fwhil Fwheaton. Tagish Lake meteorite image from Mike Zolensky/NASA.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science, Space

Comments (63)

  1. So…giant space ants are trying to sting the Earth?

  2. Oh, and when are the “Recent Comments” coming back?

  3. AngusR

    Without looking it up I’m pretty sure that it’s a quote from “Them!”

    It’s useful advice when playing “It Came from the Desert”, the computer game that was a definite homage to “Them!”. But not legally “exactly the same as”, oh no.

  4. ethanol

    So getting hit by a meteorite must really sting…

    sorry

  5. You have to love that Kent Brockman

  6. This makes me want to ask what we know of the origin of the object. Is it a cast of from another planet in our system? Did it come from the Kuiper belt? Is it extra solar in origin? It seems that knowing where it came from will tell us even more about the possibilities for chemical life elsewhere in the universe.

  7. Damn, someone beat to the reference to ‘Them’! I simply have to read your blog earlier in the morning!

  8. Stone Age Scientist

    Now all we need to find is a planet which has H2O.

    This brings to mind an article I read years ago in Discover magazine, about how under the right circumstances these very basic building blocks could come together to form RNA. I seem to remember that lightning played an integral, catalysing part. The earth was in a lot of upheavals during those days. I should know. :)

    Oh dear, I think I should begin digging out all those old magazines I keep inside the cabinet.

  9. CG

    It’s actually:
    And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.

  10. Pineyman

    Ratz. I’m a distant third with “Them”. that’s what I get for working instead of checking out BA first thing….

  11. AngusR wins the reference contest, obviously, but I’ll point out that the quotation also finds its way into a Fallout 3 quest entitled “Those!“, in which you enter subway tunnels to wipe out an infestation of giant fire ants (i.e., ants that breathe fire) inadvertently created by a scientist who’s trying to shrink the Wasteland’s giant ants back to their normal size. Which is awesome.

  12. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING ABOUT MY AUNT?!?!?!?!

    Oh, ant. sorry. My bad. :D

  13. MH

    …except that you got the quote wrong, Phil. It’s “insect” overlords!

  14. “And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.”

    Considering it’s the ant queen who’ll be running things, shouldn’t that be “overlady”?

  15. piratebrido

    …”Shoot the antennae! They’re helpless without them!”, a quotation I’ll leave it to my readers to identify…

    I know that from the game Fallout 3, but it is entirely possible that it is itself a quotation.

  16. Stone Age Scientist

    If the ants are from the last Indiana Jones movie, then “Yikes!”

  17. rob

    Them! other posters beat me to the quote answer.

    so here is another question for those people:

    what is the movie Them! based on?

  18. Chris Lamb

    Erm… It’s actually “Hwill Hweaton”, Phil.

    Accent on the “H”.

  19. dhtroy

    You really bring a wealth of information to this picnic Phil, your colony thanks you.

    Oh I’m sorry, I hope those puns don’t bug you, I’ll try to behave and just be a good pupal.
    :)

  20. Yay for formic acid!

  21. Louisa

    I have no idea who or what ‘Them’ is (or should that be, are?) but I am rolling around laughing at everyone’s comments. Love the article, I’m a total Discovery convert…

  22. Darren Garrison

    Thomas:

    “Is it a cast of from another planet in our system? Did it come from the Kuiper belt? Is it extra solar in origin?”

    No, no, and no.

    Here’s one paper (out of many that you can Google up on Tagish Lake) that shows an origin for the meteorite (if you can trust the calculations that found it):

    http://www.psrd.hawaii.edu/Dec02/TagishLake.html

    BTW, Phil– I got the quote right days ago. :-P

    http://www.mail-archive.com/meteorite-list@meteoritecentral.com/msg74029.html

  23. Oh c’mon, folks. I know it’s “insect overlords”, but we’re talking specifically ants here, so I took some poetic license. Or Poe-tic license.

  24. Blondin

    James Whitmore from “Them!”

  25. Phil, I don’t recall so many people making the same comment any other time you’ve used the “I for one welcome our new X overlords”. Wonder why they’re so antsy this time?

  26. I’ll add my “darn” to the “Them!” reference. However…

    the name comes from the Latin formica, or ant

    So what’s that stuff all over my counter top? Ick!

    (And I see “edit” is now working here. Yay!)

  27. Sarcastro

    So what’s that stuff all over my counter top? Ick!

    It’s a substitute for mica. Seriously.

  28. Maria

    Maybe I should stop killing the ant colonies around my house….. :-)

  29. I think the REAL concern here, is where is the Wiggin family and can we give them some viagra to step up the reproductive mojo?

  30. Ah, but can anyone else name the other spacey connection between Them! and the subject of Bad Astronomy? Hint: a player with a bit part in the movie who made a very logical career choice playing second banana to a decidedly non-kosher starship captain.

  31. Quiet Desperation

    “Shoot the antennae! They’re helpless without them!”

    Fallout 3. :-)

    Not only giant ants, but giant ants that spit fire. I recommend a sniper or hunting rifle from a long distance after an initial softening up by grenade.

    The mission in the game was called “Those!” in a clear reference to the film.

  32. @kuhnigget

    Leonard Nimoy had an uncredited role in it? Huh. One of those “Before they were famous” things, I guess.

  33. TS

    THEM! THEM!

    I know, I know, a bit late….

  34. Brian

    My understanding is that amino acids from space are not required to explain the origins of life–that all the amino acids you need could have been synthesized on early earth from raw materials that were known to be here under conditions that were known to exist.

    Though, let me state that I Am Not A Biologist. My training is in anthropology, so my expertise when it comes to biology is restricted to things that are a lot less nascent.

  35. DcTurner

    Interesting fact (kind of)…

    When “THEM!” was released in Sweden, it was titled “SPINDLARNA!”, which translates as “THE SPIDERS!”.

    Top marks Sweden :)

  36. Carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and a smidgeon of catalyst reversibly give you formic acid. “Transfer hydrogenation” eliminates the gas cylinder. Formic acid contains 53 g/liter H2 at ambient temperature and atmospheric pressure – twice that of compressed hydrogen at 5000 psi. Locals got plentiful HCOOH without needing ET subsidies.

    It’s a shame the H*Y*D*R*O*G*E*N car was exposed for a being a bag of dog dookies. America could be on the road dribbling fuel cell moisture right now. “Put an ant in your gas tank!” Done badly you get carbon monoxide and water. Simply make that a stiff fine and add carbon monoxide sensors along all roads, with cameras.

    Declare ants to be fragile and endangered species after the cars sell.

  37. rob

    ugh. i was mixing up “Them!” with the 1977 Joan Crawford film “Empire of the Ants.”

    both films display ants embiggened by radioactivity.

  38. Elmar_M

    I emmediately knew it was Them when I read it. Loved that movie as a child (and I watched it in germand and still was able to recognize the quote ;) ).
    BTW, the German title was “Formicula”.

  39. Don’t forget Ender’s Game! The bugs were called Formics there too.

  40. Jupiter’s moon Europa has water. As an artist I wanted to show my enthusiasm for the possibility of life there and made a textile piece showing the life forms, with a bit of whimsy. I think the whole universe has been seeded with the chemicals to create life. I just wish we could see them. When you think of the fantastical forms just in our own oceans what could there be out there?

  41. Hmm

    I’m sorry Phil, but you’re wrong.

    Any organic material on the meteorite is obviously from the brave alien who selflessly sacrificed him (her? it?) self to save us from CERTAIN RUIN.

  42. Betsy

    “Them” of course—scared me half to death as a kid and I still find it hard to watch now. The hubby loves it and will watch it every time he runs across it while surfing. That little girl was either a good natural actress or well directed for the time.

  43. UmTutSut

    “Shoot the antennae! They’re helpless without them!”

    I originally figured it was from “Them!’ but I now believe it has something to do with people facing the digital TV conversion without benefit of cable….

  44. Marsha Allen

    @32 Yep, Leonard is in one brief scene, he even has lines. The army is monitoring the wires for weird stuff. Leonard rips off one message and remarks something like “weird they want, weird they got”. He looks vaguely familiar in profile, but the voice really nails it. This is one of my favorite 50s sf movies. it also has a great scene with Fess Parker and another very funny one with an old guy in the drunk ward of a mental hospital.

  45. Wendy

    Phil, you should be nicer to hWil hWheaton. hWil hWheaton seems like a nice guy!

  46. Adrian Lopez

    I’ve never seen Them! before, but I think this is it:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-828076470184247942

  47. Adrian, yup. The antenna line (it’s actually “get”, not “shoot”, oh well) is 29 minutes in.

  48. TS

    I recently bought Them! on DVD and saw it again for the first time since I was a child. It still works.
    I was struck by how much the girl Newt from Aliens looked and was acted/written like the frightened girl in Them!. Even the structure of Aliens seem to owe something to Them!.

  49. Takes deep breath looks into camera, shouts “Them!!!” screams and goes to hide in a corner. Got to be the best b-movie ever. They really don’t make them like that any more.

  50. Chris White

    “Go to the Ant you sluggard and consider his ways…” who knows that quote?

  51. Ant overlords? Don’t you mean the Formics, commonly known as Buggers?

  52. David L
  53. dhtroy

    Just had this thought:

    Pink Floyd … Us & THEM …

    Makes you wonder.

    Just say’in.

  54. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    But now I’m left wondering how formic acid formics. (Or is it “formicates”?)

    These sorts of models with organics all the way down make me positively antsy.

    life itself forms with alacrity given the right conditions

    Quickly, without checking or giving references so probably bungling them horribly at the outset, I smash two of last weeks papers together.

    One IIRC said that they found that modeling planet formation now can reproduce the inner solar system (Venus, Earth, and the problematically small Mars, plus the asteroids; forget Mercury in these simulations) by having Jupiter and Saturn originally rather eccentric. (Oddly analogous to many exoplanet systems found. Must be something wrong here…) The first marginally convincing such result AFAIU. But then you must have a watery Earth by some other mechanism than migrating material from beyond the ‘ice border’.

    The other claims that asteroid material will supply plenty, perhaps sufficiently plenty, of water and carbon dioxide by way of the late heavy bombardment (LHB).

    So one possibility is perhaps that life, arguably traceable to the first surviving rocks just after the LHB, got started right then because it was a too dry and thin, cool atmosphere planet before. That would make life really fast and easy.

    [Which some of the abiogenesis researchers seem to think too - I've seen upper limits to the first cell of a few 10 ky proposed.]

  55. Gary

    “That means that these ingredients we need are common in the solar system, and this implies perhaps that life itself forms with alacrity given the right conditions.”

    This statement bothers me. Given the right conditions, anything could happen. I could say that I win Powerball with alacrity given the right conditions. Still the odds of that are tiny, especially given that a key ingredient (me actually purchasing a ticket) is missing. Until there’s evidence that life forms de novo, the implication is still wishful thinking. Ok, the statement is qualified with a “perhaps,” but that’s just an escape clause.

    What is it with this special yearning to discover organic life elsewhere? Why is it so important to so many people?

  56. Steve Morrison

    Phil, have you submitted this story to Slashdot? They’d love this rare valid use of the “I, for one, welcome our new X overlords” snowclone. Or are you waiting for Wil Wheaton to do it?

  57. Nigel Depledge

    FYI, thymine is not very stable, and most* living organisms do not make it.

    Instead, deoxyuridine monophosphate is converted to deoxythymidine monophosphate, which is then phosphorylated twice (to form deoxythymidine triphosphate) before it is used in DNA synthesis.

    * AFAIK, no living orgasnism biosynthesises thymine, but there’s always the possibility of an exception lurking in a warm pool somewhere . . .

  58. RaptorJedi

    I love Them!

    My uncle used to have a car that made the exact same noise as the ants from the movie whenever it went over 30 mph. It was awesome.

  59. MadScientist

    So … a Creator exists and he’s an ant??? Ave Formicus! Formicus omnius maximus!

    Now where’s the giant bug spray?

  60. Interesting…… now we need to find a planet which has water.

  61. Hatewillfullignorance

    LOL@ Gary… Let me guess… oh gee, could it be? Yet another Christian nutter vehemently opposed to even considering the possibility that humans might not be your god’s special little snowflake?

    Why do people care if there’s life on other planets? Uhm… because it’s basically the most important thing we could possibly care about? This planet’s not going to last forever. And SuperJesus is not going to swoop down and fly you out of here like Lois Lane. Grow up, or stand aside and let the adults talk.

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