Saturn’s moon Titan is speckled with lakes of liquid hydrocarbons that might just the sort of places you’d want to visit in order to look for weird forms of life.
A Spanish engineering firm has designed a probe that could explore the lakes of Titan: a paddleboat. All it needs now is a seat, and I’ll be ready to take a spin on it…
Over on Facebook, David Hillis, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas, took up my question as to whether anyone can define life in three words. His short answer was no, but his long answer, which I’ve stitched together here from a series of comments he wrote, was very interesting (links are mine):
Like all historical entities (including other biological taxa), it is only sensible to “define” Life ostensively (by pointing to it, noting when and where it began, and following its lineages from there) rather than intensionally (using a list of characteristics). This applies to the taxon we call Life (hence capitalized, as a formal name). You could define a class concept called life (not a formal taxon), but then that concept would clearly differ from person to person (whereas it is much less problematic to note examples of the taxon Life). So, I’d say that I can point to and circumscribe Life, and that it the appropriate way to “define” any biological taxon. A list of its unique characteristics is then a diagnosis, rather than a definition. So, I’d argue that any intensional definition of Life is illogical (does not recognize the nature of Life), no matter how many words are used.
Defining Life (the taxon) is like defining other particular historical entities. We don’t “define” Carl Zimmer or the United States of America by listing out their attributes. Instead, we point to their origin and history. The same should be true for Life. If we ever discover a Life2, we’ll have a new origin and history to point to.
The question people actually want to ask is “Are there entities in the universe that are similar to the Life we know about here on Earth?” The answer, of course, depends on what people mean by the arbitrary meaning of “similar”. One person might answer “I mean ‘self-replicating with variations’.” Then, the answer is yes: humans have created imperfectly self-replicating systems (“artificial life”) here on Earth. But then someone else says “But that is not what I meant by similar…I meant that they had to have metabolism and cellular structure and a nucelic-acid-based genetic system.” OK, then we have to keep looking to find something that similar. But then someone else says “But that’s pretty arbitrary…I’d still consider it alive if it didn’t have cellular structure.” Exactly…it is indeed arbitrary to argue over how similar something has to be to consider it “similar” to Life. So, in the end, we can ostensively define Life (by referencing its origin and history), and we can do the same for other historical entities that some people might also want to say are alive, but there can be no simple “right” answer that will satisfy everyone about which entities should be considered alive, because we all emphasize different characteristics in defining an arbitrary class concept of “life”.
We are all sure we know what life is, but if you try to actually define it, things get tricky fast. I wrote a feature about the scientific struggle to define life in 2007 for Seed, and I’ve been keeping tabs on the evolution of this metaphysical quandary ever since. I was particularly intrigued to discover recently that one scientist thinks he can define life–and do so in just three words. I’ve written an essay about his short and sweet definition for the web magazine Txchnologist. Check it out.
The Wall Street Journal recently asked me to review a new book called First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth. Astrobiology is a tricky subject to write about these days. It’s intensely exciting, despite the fact that its main object of study–life on other planets–has yet to be discovered.
I’ve given some thought to how we journalists should cover such a paradoxical science. We shouldn’t dismiss it outright, because astrobiologists have discovered fascinating things about life here on Earth, even if they have yet to find aliens. Yet we shouldn’t feel obligated to pump up every claim about the possibility of life elsewhere. We should be content to paint a portrait of the scientific process–including the intense debates–in all its gorey detail.
By this measure, I don’t think First Contact works. The author, Marc Kaufman, declares at the outset of the book that “before the end of this century, and perhaps much sooner than that, scientists will determine that life exists elsewhere in the universe.” Not whether life exists, mind you, but that it exists.
I don’t think he backed up that bold claim. Instead, he pumps up intriguing, but inconclusive, evidence. He portrays the scientists who made claims for arsenic life, for example, as bold, out-of-the-box thinkers, and criticisms as little more than the rants of bloggers. He’s not alone–on Thursday, Time picked a member of the arsenic life team as one of their 100 most influential people of 2011. But these portrayals don’t match the reality of the arsenic life saga. I find the manufactured dichotomy between the supposed mavericks and the mean-spirited critics to be particularly off target. Remember, a lot of the critics of arsenic life are astrobiologists themselves.
For a better example of how to embrace scientific debate, check out Richard Panek’s The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality which I reviewed for the Washington Post in January. Panek doesn’t shy away from the intense competition and bad-mouthing that cosmologists engaged in as they rushed to establish the deep mystery of the universe. It’s a rich story that doesn’t shy away from the messiness and uncertainty that the big questions in science inevitably create.
Quick note: I’ll be on the public radio show Word of Mouth show just after noon eastern time tomorrow (Wednesday 12/8) to talk about NASA’s cookie full of arsenic. You can listen live here. [Update: the podcast is posted now.]
One of the challenges of writing on deadline is that people are not waiting every moment of the day to answer your questions. My Slate piece on arsenic life was based on a dozen or so responses from an overwhelmingly skeptical group of experts. And now, an hour after my story went live, I got a reply from George Cody, a chemist at the Carnegie Institution who co-authored a major 2007 “weird life” report. Rather than let this thirteenth comment molder in my inbox, let me share it with you. It’s a bit technical but illuminating. I’ve condensed it for clarity (my clips marked by ellipses)–
I have been aware of the hypothesis of the possibility of substitution of arsenate for phosphate for some time…The issue that always comes up is the facility of hydrolysis of arseno ester bonds….The correct experiment to do would be mass spectrometry which would unambiguously determine whether an arsenate backbone was present or not in the DNA. I cannot accept this claim until such an experiment (easily done) is performed. ..
I recall a summer intern in my laboratory accidently culturing up a bacterial biofilm from a solution of concentrated fumarate, urea, and ammonium hydroxide in ultra-pure water (not surprisingly ammonia oxidizing bacteria); we were surprised but evidently the microorganisms were able to obtain the necessary nutrients, e.g. phosphate, from somewhere to grow to a point be being readily observed. Microorganisms can do quite a bit with a little. I recall a report in Nature by Benjamin Van Mooy (WHOI) where it was shown that certain marine organisms could use sulfate in their lipids when the availability of phosphate is very low. Actually, if arsenate had substituted for phosphate anywhere, I would have looked at the lipids first, again using mass-spectrometry.
Philosophically, if it turned out that an organism could use arsenate in place of phosphate, this would not in my opinion rewrite the rules of life as we know it; aside from the hydrolysis issue, arsenate is chemically very similar to phosphate. A careful chemist could likely synthesize DNA oligomers with an arsenate backbone. As I understand it this is precisely why arsenate is a poison. Ultimately, the idea of a shadow biosphere is interesting, but it would have to be demonstrated to be truly distinct from extant biochemistry, e.g. truly novel metabolic pathways, different bases for coding, different amino-acids or better still enzymes that were not based on amino-acids at all.
As the old adage goes “Extraordinary claims require…”
Likely what I have said mirrors what you have heard from others.
Indeed, it has.
Slate asked me to take a look at the scientific reactions emerging to last week’s big news about arsenic-based life. I got in touch with a dozen experts, and let’s just say, the results weren’t pretty. Check it out.
Well, not quite. Scientists have found a form of life that they claim bends the rules for life as we know it. But they didn’t need to go to another planet to find it. They just had to go to California.
The search for alien life has long been plagued by a philosophical question: what is life? Why is this so vexing? Well, let’s say that you’re hunting for change under your couch so that your four-year-old son can buy an ice cream cone from a truck that’s pulled up outside your house. Your son offers to help.
“What is change?” he asks.
“It’s…” You trail off, realizing that you’re about to get into a full-blown discussion of economics with a sugar-crazed four-year-old. So, instead, you open up your hand and show him a penny, a nickel, a dime. “It’s things like this.”
“Oh–okay!” your son says. He digs away happily. The two of you find lots of interesting things–paper clips, doll shoes, some sort of cracker–which you set aside in a little pile. But you’ve only found seventeen cents in change when the ice cream truck pulls away. Tears ensue.
As you’re tossing the pile of debris into the trash, you notice that there’s a dollar bill in the mix.
“Did you find this?” you ask.
“Yes,” your son sobs.
“Well, why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not change. Change is metal. That’s paper.”
Scientists have proposed hundreds of definitions for life, none of which has emerged as the winner. (For more on this quest, see “The Meaning of Life,” a cover story I wrote for SEED.) NASA, which would like to find life elsewhere in the universe, has taken a very practical approach to the question, simply asking what sort of definition of life should would be the best guide for their search. Traditionally, they’ve put a priority on life as we know it. All life on Earth uses DNA or RNA to encode genes; all life on Earth uses the same basic genetic code to translate genes into proteins; all life uses water as a solvent. One reason that NASA has put so much emphasis on looking for life on Mars is that it’s plausible that life as we know it might have existed on Mars back when the planet was warm and watery. And besides, how are we supposed to look for a form of life we’ve never seen before?
But in 2007 a National Academies of Science panel urged that we take a broader view of life, so that we wouldn’t miss the dollar bill in the couch. Other kinds of life were at least imaginable–such as organisms that used different backbones for their genes, or perhaps might swim through liquid methane like fish swim in water. (Here’s my write-up in the Times.) Some of the panelists–most notably, Steven Benner of the Foundation for Appllied Molecular Evolution–even endorsed a more radical notion. As I described in this feature for Discover, Benner and others speculate that maybe alien life is here on Earth.
A lot of evidence, for example, suggests that the first forms of life used RNA as both genes and enzymes. Later, double-stranded DNA evolved and DNA-based life wiped out RNA life. But perhaps RNA life still clings to existence in places where DNA-based life can’t drive them extinct. Benner suggests tiny pores in rocks that would be too small for bacteria.
No one has found RNA life yet, nor have they found any all-natural alien on Earth. But as I point out in Microcosm, there are definitely aliens among us.
They’re called E. coli.
Or, rather, they are laboratory stocks of E. coli that scientists have transformed so that they use new genetic codes or even use new nucleotides, the “letters” of DNA. No life that we know of has ever lived this way.
NASA’s press conference concerns another nearly-alien kind of life on our own planet. NASA has sponsored many expeditions to the toughest places on Earth for life to survive, from glaciers to deserts to acid-drenched mines. One of these expeditions was to Mono Lake,
a practically toxic body of water, an extreme environment. It’s very salty, very alkaline, and is steeped in arsenic. The “weird life” report singled out arsenic-based life as one topic worth investigating, so Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and her colleagues isolated a strain of bacteria and brought it back to the lab to study its growth.
As I mentioned earlier, life as we know it uses DNA for its genes (except for some viruses that use RNA). DNA has a backbone made of two alternating units: sugar and phosphate. Phosphate is one phosphorus atom and four oxygen atoms. It just so happens that arsenic–despite being a poison–has a lot of chemical properties similar to phosophorus. In fact, one arsenic atom and four oxygen atoms combine to form a molecule called aresenate that behaves a lot like phosphate.
Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues reared the bacteria in their lab, initially feeding them a typical diet of essential nutrients, including phosphate. But then they gradually reduced the phosphate in their diet and replaced it with arsenate. Before long, as they report today in Science, the bacteria were growing nicely on an all-arsenate diet, without a speck of added phosphate. The scientists then probed the DNA of the bacteria and concluded that they were sticking the arsenate into the DNA in place of phosphate. Phosphate is also vital for other molecules, such as proteins, and the scientists found arsenate in them as well. In other words–arsenic-based life.
Or…maybe not. In Science, reporter Elizabeth Pennisi writes that some scientists are skeptical, seeing other explanations for the results. One possible alternative is that the bacteria are actually stuffing away the arsenic in shielded bubbles in huge amounts.
I got in touch with Benner, who also proved to be a skeptic. “I do not see any simple explanation for the reported results that is broadly consistent with other information well known to chemistry,” he says. He pointed out that phosphate compounds are incredibly durable in water, but arsenate compounds fall apart quickly. It was possible that arsenate was being stabilized by yet another molecule, but that was just speculation. Benner didn’t dismiss the experiment out of hand, though, saying that it would be straightforward to do more tests on the alleged arsenic-DNA molecules to see if that’s what they really are. “The result will have sweeping consequences,” he said.
If Wolfe-Simon can satisfy the critics, this will be research to watch. The Mono Lake bacteria probably don’t actually exist in an arsenic-based form in nature, since they grow much faster on phosophorus. They’re aliens, but aliens in the same way unnatural E. coli are, thanks to our intervention. But Wolfe-Simon’s results suggest that life based on arsenic is at least possible. It might even exist naturally in places on Earth where arsenic levels are very high and phosphorus is very scarce.
Such a discovery would indeed be huge news–although not as huge as a similar discovery on another planet. For now, we will have to content ourselves with arsenic-laced dreams.
(PS: You should be able to watch the press conference live starting at 2pm Thursday 12/2 here.)
Reference: Wolfe-Simon et al, “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus” Science, 10.1126/science.1197258
[Update: Fixed Wolfe-Simon's name. Now I am left with images of wolf salmon roaming in packs.]
[Update: I've been adding in various corrections pointed out by astute readers. Importantly, the researchers raised the bacteria with no *added* phosphate. But the medium did have a little phosphate in it anyway. More about this on Monday!]
[Upate: Well, Monday became Tuesday, but better late than never: Here's my new article on the arsenic backlash at Slate.]