Tagastrobiology

The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Forms That Eat Stars

Maddie Stone reports for Vice Motherboard:

Dr. Clement Vidal, who’s a researcher at the Free University of Brussels, along with Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Stephen Dick, futurist John Smart, and nanotech entrepreneur Robert Freitas are soliciting scientific proposals to seek out star-eating life. Vidal, who coined the term starivore in a paper he wrote in 2013, is the first to admit how bizarre it sounds. Yet he insists that some of the most profound scientific discoveries have come about by examining natural processes through a radically different lens.

“Newton did not discover new gravitational bodies: He took a different perspective on a phenomena and discovered new things exist,” Vidal told me. “It might well be that extraterrestrial intelligence is already somewhere in our data. Re-interpreting certain star systems as macroscopic living things is one example.”

Full Story: The Search for Starivores, Intelligent Life that Could Eat the Sun

No, Life Has Still Not Been Found in a Meteorite

wickramasinghe_meteorite.jpg.CROP.original-original

Phil Plait writes:

I read the paper, and really it’s more of the same as from the first paper. In some ways, it’s even shakier; they provide lots of technical data that gives their work a veneer of credibility, but when you look a bit deeper you find they didn’t do a lot of critically necessary tests to establish the veracity of their claims. All the technical stuff obfuscates the fact that they missed the boat in some very basic ways.

In a nutshell, they don’t establish the samples they examined were actually meteorites. They don’t establish they were from the claimed meteor event over Sri Lanka in December 2012. And perhaps most telling, they don’t eliminate the possibility of contamination; that is, diatoms got into the samples because those rocks were sitting on the Earth where diatoms are everywhere.

There’s more, too, including some unusual methods if you’re trying to establish a paradigm-overthrowing claim: They don’t consult with outside experts (including those in the fields of meteorites and diatoms), they don’t get independent confirmation from an outside lab, and they published in a journal that is, um, somewhat outside the mainstream of science.

Full Story: Bad Astronomy: No, Life Has Still Not Been Found in a Meteorite

This isn’t the first time these guys have made this sort of claim. The new paper is here if you want to have a look.

Did Scientists Discover Bacteria in Meteorites?

Doesn’t look like it. P.Z. Meyers writes:

Fox News broke the story, which ought to make one immediately suspicious — it’s not an organization noted for scientific acumen. But even worse, the paper claiming the discovery of bacteria fossils in carbonaceous chondrites was published in … the Journal of Cosmology. I’ve mentioned Cosmology before — it isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth. It doesn’t exist in print, consists entirely of a crude and ugly website that looks like it was sucked through a wormhole from the 1990s, and publishes lots of empty noise with no substantial editorial restraint. For a while, it seemed to be entirely the domain of a crackpot named Rhawn Joseph who called himself the emeritus professor of something mysteriously called the Brain Research Laboratory, based in the general neighborhood of Northern California (seriously, that was the address: “Northern California”), and self-published all of his pseudo-scientific “publications” on this web site. […]

We’ve actually got to look at the claims and not dismiss them because of their location. […]

Reading the text, my impression is one of excessive padding. It’s a dump of miscellaneous facts about carbonaceous chondrites, not well-honed arguments edited to promote concision or cogency. The figures are annoying; when you skim through them, several will jump out at you as very provocative and looking an awful lot like real bacteria, but then without exception they all turn out to be photos of terrestrial organisms thrown in for reference. The extraterrestrial ‘bacteria’ all look like random mineral squiggles and bumps on a field full of random squiggles and bumps, and apparently, the authors thought some particular squiggle looked sort of like some photo of a bug. This isn’t science, it’s pareidolia. They might as well be analyzing Martian satellite photos for pictures that sorta kinda look like artifacts.

Pharyngula: Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites?

You can find the paper here if you’d like to check it out for yourself.

Previous coverage of astrobiology can be found here.

Arsenic-Based Life Possible, But Not Certain

Mono Lake

Boing Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker adds a quick dose of realism and clarity to this morning’s NASA announcement:

Not everybody agrees that this research proves the bacteria are capable of replacing phosphate with arsenic. You can read more about that debate in the really nicely done article at Nature News that I’m quoting above.

Also, even if this is proof that phosphate isn’t necessary for life, we still don’t know whether the bacteria in question actually replace their phosphate in the wild. Right now, this is something humans are convincing it to do in a petri dish. That’s why it’s not entirely fair to say that weird life has been discovered—all this paper does (if it stands up to the coming onslaught of scrutiny) is show that weird life is, in fact, possible.

But that’s still a pretty big deal. However you slice it, this is an extremely interesting little bacterium. It isn’t alien. It still has the same basic DNA structure we all know and love. It just might be able to use different chemicals to build that old, familiar structure. And that’s pretty cool on its own.

Also, Mono Lake sounds pretty cool:

A couple of years ago, scientists found bacteria in California’s Mono Lake that used arsenic compounds, rather than water, as an ingredient of photosynthesis. In fact, there’s been a lot of weird life research centered around Mono Lake. Hot, salty, low in oxygen, and high in lots of other useful chemicals, the Lake has been described as a here-and-now model of the old primordial soup.

Boing Boing: Weird life found on Earth—kind of, maybe

Photo by Chris Streeter

NASA Discovers New Life on Earth: Bacteria with Arsenic-Based DNA

Arsenic

Update: Please see this update on how, although this research is significant, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that there is arsenic-based bacteria in the wild.

Evidence that the toxic element arsenic can replace the essential nutrient phosphorus in biomolecules of a naturally occurring bacterium expands the scope of the search for life beyond Earth, according to Arizona State University scientists who are part of a NASA-funded research team reporting findings in the Dec. 2 online Science Express.

It is well established that all known life requires phosphorus, usually in the form of inorganic phosphate. In recent years, however, astrobiologists, including Arizona State University professors Ariel Anbar and Paul Davies, have stepped up conversations about alternative forms of life. […]

Davies has previously speculated that forms of life different from our own, dubbed “weird life,” might even exist side-by-side with known life on Earth, in a sort of “shadow biosphere.” The particular idea that arsenic, which lies directly below phosphorous on the periodic table, might substitute for phosphorus in life on Earth, was proposed by Wolfe-Simon and developed into a collaboration with Davies and Anbar. Their hypothesis was published in January 2009, in a paper titled “Did nature also choose arsenic?” in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

PhysOrg: Deadly arsenic breathes life into organisms

Rampant Speculation About NASA’s Forthcoming Astrobiology Announcement

Aliens

I don’t generally like to talk about NASA press conferences before they happen because I don’t want to promote baseless rumor-mongering. In this case, though, I feel I have to write something to prevent speculation! Here’s the scoop: NASA released the news that a press conference will be held on Thursday at 14:00 ET, saying that the conference will “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”
That, of course, set everyone speculating. The very popular news site Kottke.org actually has a decent line of evidence on the topic of the conference, though a sensational headline of “Has NASA discovered extraterrestrial life?” Gawker has a post up about this as well, and social networks like reddit have a lot of people talking, too. Other examples abound.
So what’s the press conference about? I don’t know, to be honest, beyond what’s in the announcement. The scientists on the panel are interesting, including noted astrobiologists and geologists who work on solar system objects like Mars and Titan. So this is most likely going to be something about conditions on another moon or planet conducive for life.
Of course, the speculation is that NASA will announce the discovery for life. Maybe. I can’t rule that out, but it seems really unlikely; I don’t think they would announce it in this way. It would’ve been under tighter wraps, or one thing. It’s more likely they’ve found a new way life can exist and that evidence for these conditions exists on other worlds. But without more info, I won’t speculate any farther than that.

Discover: Snowballing speculation over a NASA press conference

All Life on Earth Could Have Come From Alien Zombies

Flu virus

Scientists have speculated that life could have come to Earth from space — a notion called panspermia — since the 1870s, when Lord Kelvin suggested microbes could have ridden here on a comet or meteor. Others have suggested tiny organisms could cross the galaxy embedded in dust grains, which could be nudged from one planetary system to another by the slight pressure of stars’ radiation.

However, most astrobiologists think that same radiation spells a death sentence for delicate microbes.

“That essentially kills panspermia in the classical sense,” said astrobiologist Rocco Mancinelli of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

But maybe not, says astronomer Paul Wesson, a visiting researcher at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Canada. In an upcoming paper in Space Science Reviews, Wesson argues that even if the actual microbes are dead on arrival, the information they carry could allow life to rise from the charred remains, an idea he calls necropanspermia.

Wired Science: All Life on Earth Could Have Come From Alien Zombies

What the article doesn’t mention is that a bacteria sample recently survived a year and a half in space, without oxygen.

Bacteria Survives in Space, Without Oxygen, for a Year and a Half

space-bacteria

The bugs were put on the exterior of the space station to see how they would cope in the hostile conditions that exist above the Earth’s atmosphere.

And when scientists inspected the microbes a year and a half later, they found many were still alive.

These survivors are now thriving in a laboratory at the Open University (OU) in Milton Keynes.

The experiment is part of a quest to find microbes that could be useful to future astronauts who venture beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the rest of the Solar System. […]

This type of research also plays into the popular theory that micro-organisms can somehow be transported between the planets in rocks – in meteorites – to seed life where it does not yet exist.

BBC: Beer microbes live 553 days outside ISS

Interestingly, the bacteria selected weren’t known extremophiles, they were selected apparently at random.

Scientists predict the possibility of “shadow biosphere”

Shadow Biosphere

The possibility of strange forms of alien life seems to have just got a whole lot closer to home. Astrobiologists from Arizona State University, Florida, UC Boulder, NASA, Harvard and Australia have recently theorized about a “shadow biosphere” – a biosphere within a biosphere where alternative biochemistry may be thriving in a way that we haven’t yet thought to examine. Such “weird life” may have had, for hundreds of millions of years, their own ecologies right here in our own backyard. Indeed, like Dark Energy and neutrinos, “weird life” may be all around us even now, only in a non-obvious way. Some astrobiologists are now suggesting that “weird life” is just as likely to be found here on Earth as it is in the Martian regolith, the seas of Europa , or certainly the complex bio-hadronistry on the surface of a neutron star.

Biology Blog: Scientists predict the possibility of shadow biosphere

(via Fadereu)

Meteorite that crashed into Earth 40 years ago contains organic molecules

Murchison

Scientists say that a meteorite that crashed into Earth 40 years ago contains millions of different carbon-containing, or organic, molecules.

Although they are not a sign of life, such organic compounds are life’s building blocks, and are a sign of conditions in the early Solar System.

It is thought the Murchison meteorite could even be older than the Sun.

The results of the meteorite study are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read More – BBC: Space rock contains organic molecular feast

See also: Professor claims life on earth came from space

(via Disinfo)

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