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Why the idea of alien life now seems inevitable and possibly imminent… Why Space Aliens Might Message Us With Encoded DNA

Why the idea of alien life now seems inevitable and possibly imminent

We’re publishing it as part of our occasional series Zoom Out, where authors explore key ideas in science and technology in the broader context of society and humanity.


Extraterrestrial life, that familiar science-fiction trope, that kitschy fantasy, that CGI nightmare, has become a matter of serious discussion, a “risk factor”, a “scenario”.

How has ET gone from sci-fi fairytale to a serious scientific endeavour modelled by macroeconomists, funded by fiscal conservatives and discussed by theologians?

Because, following a string of remarkable discoveries over the past two decades, the idea of alien life is not as far-fetched as it used to seem.

Discovery now seems inevitable and possibly imminent.

It’s just chemistry

While life is a special kind of complex chemistry, the elements involved are nothing special: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on are among the most abundant elements in the universe. Complex organic chemistry is surprisingly common.

Amino acids, just like those that make up every protein in our bodies, have been found in the tails of comets. There are other organic compounds in Martian soil.

And 6,500 light years away a giant cloud of space alcohol floats among the stars.

Habitable planets seem to be common too. The first planet beyond our Solar System was discovered in 1995. Since then astronomers have catalogued thousands.

Based on this catalogue, astronomers from the University of California, Berkeley worked out there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized exoplanets in the so-called “habitable zone” around their star, where temperatures are mild enough for liquid water to exist on the surface.

There’s even a potentially Earth-like world orbiting our nearest neighbouring star, Proxima Centauri. At just four light years away, that system might be close enough for us to reach using current technology. With the Breakthrough Starshot project launched by Stephen Hawking in 2016, plans for this are already afoot.

Life is robust

It seems inevitable other life is out there, especially considering that life appeared on Earth so soon after the planet was formed.

The oldest fossils ever found here are 3.5 billion years old, while clues in our DNA suggest life could have started as far back as 4 billion years ago, just when giant asteroids stopped crashing into the surface.

Our planet was inhabited as soon as it was habitable – and the definition of “habitable” has proven to be a rather flexible concept too.

Life survives in all manner of environments that seem hellish to us:

Tantalisingly, some of these conditions seem to be duplicated elsewhere in the Solar System.

Snippets of promise

Mars was once warm and wet, and was probably a fertile ground for life before the Earth.

Today, Mars still has liquid water underground. One gas strongly associated with life on Earth, methane, has already been found in the Martian atmosphere, and at levels that mysteriously rise and fall with the seasons. (However, the methane result is under debate, with one Mars orbiter recently confirming the methane detection and another detecting nothing.)

Martian bugs might turn up as soon as 2021 when the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin will hunt for them with a two-metre drill.

Besides Earth and Mars, at least two other places in our Solar System might be inhabited. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are both frozen ice worlds, but the gravity of their colossal planets is enough to churn up their insides, melting water to create vast subglacial seas.

In 2017, specialists in sea ice from the University of Tasmania concluded that some Antarctic microbes could feasibly survive on these worlds. Both Europa and Enceladus have undersea hydrothermal vents, just like those on Earth where life may have originated.

When a NASA probe tasted the material geysered into space out of Enceladus last June it found large organic molecules. Possibly there was something living among the spray; the probe just didn’t have the right tools to detect it.

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has been so enthused by this prospect, he wants to help fund a return mission.

A second genesis?

A discovery, if it came, could turn the world of biology upside down.

All life on Earth is related, descended ultimately from the first living cell to emerge some 4 billion years ago.

Bacteria, fungus, cacti and cockroaches are all our cousins and we all share the same basic molecular machinery: DNA that makes RNA, and RNA that makes protein.

A second sample of life, though, might represent a “second genesis” – totally unrelated to us. Perhaps it would use a different coding system in its DNA. Or it might not have DNA at all, but some other method of passing on genetic information.

By studying a second example of life, we could begin to figure out which parts of the machinery of life are universal, and which are just the particular accidents of our primordial soup.

Perhaps amino acids are always used as essential building blocks, perhaps not.

We might even be able to work out some universal laws of biology, the same way we have for physics – not to mention new angles on the question of the origin of life itself.

A second independent “tree of life” would mean that the rapid appearance of life on Earth was no fluke; life must abound in the universe.

It would greatly increase the chances that, somewhere among those billions of habitable planets in our galaxy, there could be something we could talk to.

Perhaps life is infectious

If, on the other hand, the discovered microbes were indeed related to us that would be a bombshell of a different kind: it would mean life is infectious.

When a large meteorite hits a planet, the impact can splash pulverised rock right out into space, and this rock can then fall onto other planets as meteorites.

Life from Earth has probably already been taken to other planets – perhaps even to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Microbes might well survive the trip.

In 1969, Apollo 12 astronauts retrieved an old probe that had sat on the Moon for three years in extreme cold and vacuum – there were viable bacteria still inside.

As Mars was probably habitable before Earth, it’s possible life originated there before hitchhiking on a space rock to here. Perhaps we’re all Martians.

Even if we never find other life in our Solar System, we might still detect it on any one of thousands of known exoplanets.

It is already possible to look at starlight filtered through an exoplanet and tell something about the composition of its atmosphere; an abundance of oxygen could be a telltale sign of life.

A testable hypothesis

The James Webb Space Telescope, planned for a 2021 launch, will be able to take these measurements for some of the Earth-like worlds already discovered.

Just a few years later will come space-based telescopes that will take pictures of these planets directly.

Using a trick a bit like the sun visor in your car, planet-snapping telescopes will be paired with giant parasols called starshades that will fly in tandem 50,000 kilometres away in just the right spot to block the blinding light of the star, allowing the faint speck of a planet to be captured.

The colour and the variability of that point of light could tell us the length of the planet’s day, whether it has seasons, whether it has clouds, whether it has oceans, possibly even the colour of its plants.

The ancient question “Are we alone?” has graduated from being a philosophical musing to a testable hypothesis. We should be prepared for an answer.

Why Space Aliens Might Message Us With Encoded DNA

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Earth from ISS Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Could the microbes that surround us actually be encoded with interstellar messages from some far-flung race of space aliens? It’s a question that has been posed for decades by some members of the SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) community. But most recently it was tackled by longtime space advocate Robert Zubrin, at this month’s ‘Breakthrough Discuss 2019’ conference at the University of California at Berkeley.

Given that we are now capable of sequencing the entire human genome, it’s not so far-fetched to think that we might be well-served to look for patterns, even messages in strands of bacterial DNA. Such microbes might make the perfect conduit for an interstellar Encyclopedia Galactica.

The idea is that once they are launched intentionally or even unintentionally, bacteria can travel interstellar distances and potentially seed the universe with messages from whoever encrypted them.

An individual bacterium — which typically ranges in size between one and ten-millionths of a meter — can easily replicate itself. But how could such tiny microbes naturally overcome their star’s gravity in order to make an interstellar journey?

Most likely through light pressure from their star’s outflow of photons, Zubrin, an astronautical engineer who is founder and president of The Mars Society, told me. This method of bacteria transmission would work best for brighter stars such as F-, G-, and K- spectral type stars. However, Zubrin notes that Red dwarf M-stars, the cosmos’ most ubiquitous, might have a difficult time pushing their bacteria outside their solar systems.

Yet if a bacterial colony was strongly magnetized, as Zubrin noted in a 2017 article posted on the popular space blog, Centauri Dreams, it might be able to act as a miniature magnetic sail. If so, it would, in theory, catch a 500 kilometer-per-second solar wind. That’s more than enough to propel it out of the solar system.

In contrast, if a manufactured microbial solar sail were shot out of the Earth’s gravity by a rocket and released into near-Earth space, it would be blown out of the solar system at approximately Earth’s speed around the Sun, or 30 kilometers-per-second. Thus, it would travel a light year every 10,000 years, and be able to reach nearby stars in less than 50,000 years. And Zubrin says the point is that at least some of these bacteria would survive such a trip.

DNA structure

DNA structure Credit: Wikipedia

But they wouldn’t have an easy time of it. They would be subject to high doses of both cosmic ray and ultraviolet radiation that would be close to the limit of survivability for even hardy microbial species such as Deinococcus radiodurans. But Zubrin is adamant that out of the initial billions of bacterium cells sent, at least some would survive and get through; thus, preserving the message in the process.

Researchers here on Earth have already proven that they can successfully encode information in bacterial DNA. As Zubrin noted in this month’s Berkeley talk, microbiologists at Columbia University and The New York Genome Project demonstrated their ability to encode information with a density of 215,000 terabytes per gram of DNA.

Researchers here on Earth have already proven that they can successfully encode information in bacterial DNA. As Zubrin noted in this month’s Berkeley talk, microbiologists at Columbia University and The New York Genome Project demonstrated their ability to encode information with a density of 215,000 terabytes per gram of DNA.

By current estimates, one gram of bacteria can be encoded with some 900 terabytes of data , or enough to fill about two billion 200-page books, says Zubrin.

If an alien civilization were to send such an extensive library of encoded DNA in a putative interstellar message, they could basically provide us with an Encyclopedia Galactica of everything they ever knew and could hope to know.

What would be involved in conducting such a search?

As Zubrin wrote in his article for Centauri Dreams, he hopes that buried somewhere in a bacteria’s so-called junk DNA, there might be an alien code of amino acids just waiting to be unscrambled and decoded by a top cryptologist.

We could look for messages that might conceivably be found in the genomes of multicellular organisms, says Zubrin. But he says that would require evidence that they were carrying genetic information not useful to bacteria. Finding such evidence would require the genetic sequencing of terrestrial genomes to look for either magic numbers (such as Pi) or other anomalous traits.

As Zubrin noted in his Berkeley talk, a good place to start looking for such encoded microbes would be to focus bacteria showing the strongest signs of most recent extraterrestrial origin. He noted that they might be found by: Subjecting bacterial to space conditions, to see which are adapted for spaceflight. Aerogel sampling to look for microbes in space. Looking for anomalous microbes in Earth’s stratosphere. Looking for microbes in the atmospheres of Mars, Venus, or Saturn’s moon of Titan. Or even looking for alien micro sailcraft in planetary atmospheres.

E.Coli bacteria

E.Coli bacteria Credit: Wikipedia

At this point, no one can say whether the evolution of life on Earth had outside help from natural or artificial panspermia — the theory that life originated from microorganisms or chemical precursors of life present in outer space. But Zubrin seems convinced that life appeared on our own planet as soon as it was physically possible.

In fact, life appeared on Earth 3.8 billion years ago, virtually immediately after the end of the heavy asteroidal and cometary bombardment phase in the inner solar system that is thought to have precluded life on Earth prior to that, says Zubrin. Thus, he concludes that either life evolves quickly and easily from chemistry as soon as it has a chance. Or life was already floating around in space ready to land and multiply as soon as conditions on Earth became livable.

Because we find no evidence of pre-bacteria in Earth’s fossil record Zubrin thinks that it’s highly probable that bacterial life must have arrived here from interstellar space in one fell swoop.

I’m unaware of any free-living organisms on Earth that are equipped with fully-functional DNA/RNA information systems that are simpler than bacteria, says Zubrin.

“If natural or artificial panspermia were occurring, we would see the same general type of life everywhere, with no evidence of a prior evolutionary history of simpler forms,” said Zubrin.

But panspermia could take place naturally, via happenstance, the same way that meteorites from the Moon, Mars and the Main Asteroid Belt show up here on Earth. If we find microbes on Mars with the same information system as Earth, but no prior local evolutionary history that would support panspermia says Zubrin. But we would still need to show it was artificial panspermia, he says.

As for the civilization that sent the DNA message?

They could be very ancient and maybe even long gone.

Aliens created our genetic code and signed it with the number 37, scientists say

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Is the answer to life, the universe and everything 37?

So you’re an alien seeding primordial Earth with life. Like any creator, you sign your work. Now we may have found that signature – in the genetic code

Human DNA ‘was designed by aliens’, say scientists

HUMAN DNA was designed by ALIENS, scientists who spent 13 years working on the human genome have sensationally claimed.

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