Phosophorous(P) is the backbone of DNA – right??

Earlier this week NASA made a rather ambiguous pre-announcement. They left plenty of room for rumor, as the only detail they were willing to give was that the announcement involved a major find in Astrobiology. Astrobiology is the study of life in extreme environments, space, and on other planets. Quickly the rumor started flying about what the announcement could possibly involve; was it completely overblown and actually not exciting, or had they really found E.T.?

While the announcement itself did not involve a finding of life outside of Earth’s atmosphere, what was found was possibly the next most interesting find that could have been announced.

D.N.A. is a molecule necessary to carry out all the instructions for the development of an organism, whether that might be a protozoa, bacterium, insect, plant, or human. It is composed of five main chemicals one of which, phosphorous (P), creates the backbone of a DNA molecule phosphate. Without this background, the molecule could not be held together.

For a long time biologists have believed that phosphorous was the only such element that could bind together the DNA molecule. It was taught that without this element, life itself could not have arose, and therefore could not exist. NASA’s announcement has shed a new light on the subject, illuminating previously known corners of astrobiology.

The find comes from Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team’s research at Mono Lake in California. Mono Lake is extremely arsenic(As) rich and shouldn’t support any form of life, as arsenic is extremely poisonous to life on earth, or at least that what biologists previously thought. The find that Felisa’s team discovered is that the lake actually does support life, but FAR from what we thought life was supposed to consist of, Carbon(C), Oxygen(O), Hydrogen(H), Nitrogen(N) and Phosphorus.

While the main four Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen were found in microbial life that her team found, the phosphate backbone had been replaced by an arsenate backbone. Arsenic itself is only one floor below Phosphorous on the periodic table, which means that the element itself is actually extremely similar.

The microbe itself, dubbed GFAJ-1, was developed in a laboratory, where it sat in an arsenic mixture as it grew for months. Overtime, the microbe replaced it’s sugar phosphate backbone with the newly discovered arsenic backbone, redefining what textbooks have up to this point instructed as the primary element needed to bind together the DNA molecule. It’s unknown at this point whether any other changes occured in the DNA molecule, but I would venture to guess there must be. Even so, it’d come as no surprise to me if not, and even if there was or wasn’t a major change to the DNA aside from the arsenate backbone, the ramifications of this find point to a major paradigm shift in biology.

A paradigm shift is when a new find presents information that completely revolutionizes previously known information. For instance, the heliocentric model (sun centered) that showed the earth revolved around the sun rather than the sun and planets around earth, or the Quantum Revolution in physics. Biology up to this point was thought to center around this one model of DNA, and it was believed that if life existed elsewhere in the universe that it would consist of roughly the same ingriendients. This belief has now been thrown upside down with Felisa’s discovery.

So what does this mean for the future of Biology and Astrobiology? This suggests that life as we know it on earth, our commonplace assumption that life must have a DNA molecule with a Phosphorous backbone, is wrong and that life can exist with a completely different “binding” on their book of instructions. However, does it stop with the phosphate backbone? Perhaps. However, part of scientific discovery that makes it so wonderful is finding things that you thought were true turned out to be wrong or at the least misleading. Perhaps there are creatures that are not Carbon based, but use some other element. Maybe on another planet somewhere orbiting a distant star, possibly another galaxy, there exists Nitrogen based organisms, in which case it’s a good thing David Duchovny is still alive.

“Break out the Head and Shoulders!”

While most people are rather disappointed in this find from Felisa and her team, I myself find it pretty exhilarating to knowlife can take different forms on the molecular level than we previously believed. It could mean that life could develop on planets that we before though was impossible to harbor life. While GFAJ-1 may have been a terrestrial organism, it represents the idea that life can develop in not only harsh or extreme environments, but completely toxic and deadly ones.

Survival it seems is not limited only to proper conditions and temperature, but has a wide array of methods to which it can adapt. It’s going to be interesting to see this implemented in the future, and where this takes scientific discovery.

Alien Life Forms – Humanoid, Amphibian, or Something Literally Out of This World.

I’ve been wondering for awhile what Alien life forms might be like, assuming we ever come into some form of contact with it. While most Astrobiologists suggest the obvious, that if we were to find life it would most likely be bacterial lifeforms and not the average person’s idea of life. However, while I may be probing my imagination a little bit, I often stop to wonder what lifeforms might exist out there aside from our tiny planet.

It’s only been just recently that Astronomers discovered Gliese 581g, a small exoplanet orbiting the star Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra. This planet is remarkable in that it is tidally locked with it’s star, making one side extremely cold and the other extremely hot, while the would be Prime Meridian of the planet is the perfect temperature. Not only is there an area on the planet for life to exist, but the planet also orbits in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”, the area just ripe for life where it’s not too hot and not too cold.

This has got me thinking deeply about what kind of life might arise. If you look at the diverse amount of life forms Earth has created, there’s almost no limit to what you might dream up. A few months ago Discovery Channel released Stephen Hawking’s “Into the Universe” which portrayed the following video.

Another strange thing to think about is that if water is abundant in the universe, and if water is one of the most important things for life to exist, it follows then that life could exist even on things that may not be considered “worlds”. Comets and asteroids can sometimes house water, is it too far to say that they could also house life? I like to imagine creatures that live on the backs of comets, sailing through our solar system.

Jupiter’s own moon Europa may house tons of life buried beneath it’s massive cracked ice sheets. The moon is constantly churned by Jupiter’s gravity, which creates artificial tides beneath the ice sheets. This can create a friction underneath the moon’s ice that warms it just enough to support life in it’s hidden ocean. Could this life be synonymous with our own sea life? Are there forms of fish, shark, whales, and dolphin – though very morphologically different – that exist beneath it’s ice? Maybe they resemble Cretaceous dinosaurs, and yet still they could resemble something the likes of which we can’t imagine!

This is why to an Science nerd or geek, and I use those terms interchangeably, Science Fiction is so appealing. Will we one day in the future discover lifeforms that resemble those of the Star Wars Universe?

Because who couldn’t love a Bith?

Gene Roddenberry was ahead of his time in technological fiction in Star Trek, and thanks to his imagination in a way gave birth to a multitude of technology that were once thought impossible. Isaac Asimov’s I,Robot is starting to seem more and more a reality with the new French Aldebaran creation the Nao Robot.

And here I have another possibility that might arise. Might we find synthetic life? A life form that can only be explained away by another intelligent life form having created it synthetically? We have ourselves created robotics and even an entire synthetic cell capable of reproduction.

It seems there’s no limit to human imagination, partly I would say because we are a part of Nature’s seemingly limitless imagination. I’d like to quote Richard Feynman here, as this is one of my favorite quotes by him, it literally gives me chill every time I hear it.

“I think nature’s imagination is so much greater than man’s, She’s never gonna let us relax.”

Evolution vs. Belief – The Differences of Theories and Esoterics

So today I saw one of my favorite Simpsons intro’s ever. I had seen it before but just recently came across it again. Here’s the clip for those who are curious.

After watching it, I thought I’d cover some things with Evolution. Like religion, it can get controversial – if you’re religious. Evolution is often times called the theory that destroyed religion, but I don’t really see it that way. Only 12.7% of the world is Non-religious, which makes up only 800 million people. But if you look at the statistics of people that believe in evolution, it’s about 4/10 people, or 40% (which I find to be pretty gross to be honest).

Many scientists actually believe in a higher power, which is not too well known. However, why do only a rough 40% of people believe in Evolution? Well, I think the problem might be a mix of things. Let’s start breaking it down.

  1. 1. The Terms. I think a big problem is the confusion of terms with Evolution as well as other scientific theories. You never hear anyone saying anything that sounds remotely like “The evidence for evolution suggests the theory is correct.” Instead what you get is all kind of people, scientists, average people, and religious dogma’s alike using the word ‘believe’ with scientific theories. I did it up above, even I have the problem! I think people get very confused with Science in that you have to believe the theory. It’s never a question of evidence, but a question of personal opinion, which laughs in the face of science! Science takes facts and forms hypotheses out of facts, you don’t believe in Science – you trust in science because it creates the most valid view of the world around us.
  2. 2. Confusion of the meaning of a theory. I hear often of people saying that science never proves anything, it only disproves. I think what people miss when they say this is that that is the whole point! I had this discussion in the past with a good friend of mine, that science never sets out to prove itself right, rather it’s quite the opposite. All the greatest theories have set out to prove themselves wrong. A lot of people have trouble understanding this concept. Why would someone ever want to prove themselves wrong? The truth is that by doing so you get a lot more answers about how the world works – because you’re looking for the truth, not for what you’d like to be the truth. Theories are not the truth, they are simply the best answer to explain certain phenomena, and scientists welcome competing theories that can prove those standard theories wrong. Evolution, the Big Bang, Quantum Theory, Relativity: They await the day that a better theory is set forth to explain them.
  3. 3. Personal Dogma. A lot of Evolution’s issue is that it laughs in the face of personal wishes or perceptions of how the world is. This correlates with No. 2, some people just hate to be wrong. People are raised certain ways, shaped certain ways through their environment, to become certain people with certain beliefs. To try to change that takes a major amount of willpower on the person; it is up to them to change it. For religious believers, evolution seems to disagree with a lot of the dogma they were raised believing, and it takes a strong character to change or mold their beliefs around evolution.

This is just a few of the issues I see. I’m sure if I kept at it I could come up with hundreds. I realize that people are different and have different sets of beliefs, but I don’t see the theory of Evolution as a system of belief, rather it is simply a theory to explain the world, one that works far better than any other theory. Evolution does have holes, but it’s nothing that the theories of evolution couldn’t explain later, after we’ve acquired more information. It might not correlate well with your personal beliefs, but a belief is something esoteric, opinionated, and incorporeal. You can’t prove a belief. You can’t put beliefs to the test. If I showed you all the ways in which a belief was wrong, you still have every right to believe what you had believed in the first place. I think that people constantly, without meaning to, believe things that aren’t measurable – and that is their right – but it is still silly from my perspective to believe in something that disagrees with what we know to be the most true.

I was wondering what might have caused a person to have such strange beliefs, not necessarily religious but any esoteric thought; Astrology, witchcraft, numerology, etc. All of these things I find fascinating and fun, but at the same time I don’t believe a word of what they tell me. If I read a horoscope I might laugh, but I never take it seriously. There’s too much P.T. Barnum with them. Still, there are a large proportion of people that believe in these things, and it took an interesting talk by Michael Shermer at TED for me to realize what exactly could cause these strange ideas and beliefs.

The big thing he explains is that human beings as a means of survival developed a way to understand the world. Our ability to see patterns, was a way to explain away the world surrounding us, and thus led us to better adaptability. As Shermer points out, if you were an ancient hominid and saw a rusting in the grass, it would be better for you to assume that a predator was there than the wind, as one could likely kill you. This is a sensing of patterns. You saw a pattern (rustling of the grass), and to make sense of it you explained it away. Those that explained the phenomenon by assuming it was a predator lived, those that thought it was the wind died.

We still use patterns today, and probably will for the rest of human existence. Pattern sensing is what mathematicians use to solve complex problems, it’s what helps stock market brokers to play the market, and it’s what helps us navigate the road when driving. A side-effect of pattern sensing however, is the ability to sense patterns that aren’t there, or that are meaningless.

An example of pattern seeking behavior in the sky. What do you see?

It’s both a strength and a curse, and the scientific method has aided us in drawing a line between what patterns are real and which are false. There are many unexplainable phenomena still left in the world and many things to still be figured out.

I want to leave you with two quotes by Albert Einstein that is relevant to this post.

“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have”

…to be continued.

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