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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2002 > Nov > Nov 7

Scientists Intensify Hunt For 'Non-Terrean' Life

From: Stig Agermose <stig.agermose.nul>
Date: Thu, 07 Nov 2002 05:00:46 +0100
Archived: Thu, 07 Nov 2002 12:48:35 -0400
Subject: Scientists Intensify Hunt For 'Non-Terrean' Life

Source: The Mercury News via SiliconValley.com





Posted on Mon, Nov. 04, 2002


The hunt for alien pond scum

By Robert S. Boyd
Mercury News Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON - With growing support from the federal government,
scientists are accelerating their hunt for life beyond Earth.

They also are broadening the search to include organisms unlike
any of those on our home planet -- what some researchers call
"weird life." By this, they mean alien forms of life that are
not based on our familiar DNA but on a different genetic code.

In theory, creatures made of unusual biological or chemical
structures might exist on moons or planets that lack liquid
water, a must for life as we know it.

"We are looking for organic life that might be different from
Earth life," said John Baross, a biologist at the University of
Washington in Seattle, and co-chairman of the Committee on the
Origin and Evolution of Life at the National Academy of
Sciences, the nation's premier scientific organization.

According to David Deamer, a biochemist at the University of
California- Santa Cruz, there is "a 50-50 chance" that extra-
terrestrial life would have a different chemistry from life on

The genetic code of every earthly creature, from bacteria to
whales, is written in an alphabet of four letters -- A, C, G and
T. Each stands for a chemical compound known as a base. "Weird
life," however, might have different or additional bases and
hence be written in a different alphabet -- say B, C, G and H.

In addition, all proteins -- the building blocks of terrestrial
life -- are assembled from a set of 20 chemical compounds known
as amino acids. But laboratory researchers already have created
deviant proteins using more than 20 amino acids.

If extraterrestrial life turns out to be made of the same
materials as on Earth, scientists don't expect to find "little
green men." The creatures probably will resemble pond scum, a
film or mat of primitive microbes like the cyanobacteria that
colonized our planet nearly 4 billion years ago.

Even that would be a monumental discovery, proving that we are
not alone in the universe.

At the request of Congress, the National Academy committee is
preparing a road map to guide the quest for both Earth-like and
unconventional extra-terrestrial life. The search is known as
astrobiology, a combination of astronomy and biology.

"Astrobiology is no longer a joke. It is serious business," said
Bruce Runegar, director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, a
consortium of 11 universities and research institutions that the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration established five
years ago to coordinate the search.

Serious study

To ensure that astrobiology is taken seriously, the academy
committee decided at a meeting in Washington earlier this month
to quit using the term "weird life" in its reports because it
sounds too much like science fiction.

Instead, committee members came up with the awkward name, "non-
terrean life," as opposed to "terrean life" here on Earth.

" 'Weird life' was not sophisticated enough" for the National
Academy, Baross explained.

Much of the committee's meeting was spent examining the work of
the Astrobiology Institute, which coordinates the research of
850 scientists and engineers.

Current astrobiology projects include:

 - Collecting meteorites from Mars that might reveal signs of
past or present life. Scientists now doubt that the famous
meteorite that was picked up in Antarctica in 1984 contains the
fossils of ancient microbes, as once was claimed. But they are
adding a third search team to the two that already are hunting
for more Martian rocks.

 - Designing scientific instruments to fly on missions to Mars
and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. NASA is testing robots that
can drill through rock, soil and ice in Antarctica and the
Chilean desert. The first mission to collect Martian soil and
return it to Earth won't be until 2011 at the earliest.

In addition, a space probe will reach Titan, an Earth-sized moon
orbiting Saturn, in 2005. Astrobiologists are interested in
Titan because it may have lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, such as
methane, which might host an alternative form of life.

 - Exploring the capacity of life to survive in extremely
hostile environments on Earth as a guide to what to look for on
other planets. This month, astrobiologists will dive to the
bottom of a frozen lake in a volcano high in the Andes to test
the limits of life as it might be found on Europa, an ice-
covered moon of Jupiter.

"By exploring extreme environments here on Earth, we'll be much
more capable when we get to another planet," said Michael Meyer,
NASA's chief scientist for astrobiology.

 - Doing laboratory experiments to create and study abnormal
life forms so they won't be overlooked. NASA missions designed
to spot only Earth-like microbes might miss bizarre organisms.

For example, Steven Benner, a biochemist at the University of
Florida in Gainesville, has created lifelike molecules with non-
standard DNA codes, and proteins with more than the standard 20
amino acids. His goal is to determine how such alternative
systems might be detected on other worlds.

"These are potential 'bio-signatures' for both terrean-like life
and 'weird life' forms," Benner wrote in a paper describing his
lab's work. He is also helping to design detectors to fly on
NASA missions to Mars.

Search on Earth

The search for clues to extraterrestrial life is even going on
under Earth's oceans.

The Ocean Drilling Program, an international research
partnership, has been studying the geology of the seafloor for
30 years, but it is starting to look for living microbes and
fossils underneath it. Such creatures might have counterparts on
other planets.

James Yoder, an ocean expert at the National Science Foundation,
a federal agency in Arlington, Va., said a drilling ship would
start exploring the "deeply buried biosphere" next year. "The
ODP has just started doing biology," he said.

Victoria Meadows, an astrobiologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, builds computer models of extra-
terrestrial environments to see what forms of life might be
possible on other planets.

One project is to model what Earth would have looked like from
space 2 billion years ago, before its oxygen-rich atmosphere
developed. The models could provide clues to possible evidence
of life, such as methane gas, on an apparently lifeless planet.

Astrobiology work

Future space missions related to astrobiology include:

 - NEWBORN PLANETS: A giant infrared space telescope, SIRTF,
which will be launched in January, will be able to detect disks
of dust and gas around other stars, where new planets are born.
A gap in such a disk, like a hole in a doughnut, is a sign that
a planet is there. One such gap in one disk, around the bright
southern star Fomelhaut, was reported earlier this month.

 - EARTH-SIZE PLANETS: The Space Interferometry Mission, set for
launch in 2009, will be a fleet of three synchronized telescopes
trailing our planet as it revolves around the sun. The mission
will survey 200 nearby stars looking for Earth-size planets.
About 100 extrasolar planets already have been discovered, but
they are too big and hot to be considered habitable.

 - MARTIAN LIFE: A series of Mars landers and orbiters will be
launched every other year starting in 2003 to scout the Red
Planet for sites where biological activity might be found. A
mission to collect a sample of Martian rocks and soil and return
it to Earth is planned for 2011 or 2013.

 - EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE: The Terrestrial Planet Finder, an even
more powerful space telescope that's still being designed, is
planned for launch by 2015. Its mission is to investigate 50
extrasolar planets where conditions might make life possible. It
then will pick 10 of these for closer study, looking for
signposts of primitive life.


Visit the NASA Astrobiology Institute at:


or the Astrobiology Web at



Contact Robert S. Boyd at rboyd.nul

=A9 2001 siliconvalley and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.


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