Thursday, January 13, 2011

XNA and acquisitive and resource-hungry aliens

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars - In a study that pushes the limits of observations currently possible from Earth, a team of NASA and European scientists recorded the "fingerprints" of mystery molecules in two distant galaxies, Andromeda and the Triangulum. Astronomers can count on one hand the number of galaxies examined so far for such fingerprints, which are thought to belong to large organic molecules. See article.
g Abodes - ASU scientists and collaborators have sampled one of the numerous "Pozas Rojas" (Red Pools) in the desert oasis of Cuatro Cienegas, Mexico. These pools vary tremendously in temperature (from freezing in winter to 40 C in summer) and salinity (from relatively fresh to encrusted with salt) during the annual season but nevertheless are full of diverse and fully functional microbial communities studied at ASU's NASA-funded Astrobiology program. See article.
g Life - Synthetic biologists try to engineer useful biological systems that do not exist in nature. One of their goals is to design an orthogonal chromosome different from DNA and RNA, termed XNA for xeno nucleic acids. XNA exhibits a variety of structural chemical changes relative to its natural counterparts. These changes make this novel information-storing biopolymer “invisible” to natural biological systems. The lack of cognition to the natural world, however, is seen as an opportunity to implement a genetic firewall that impedes exchange of genetic information with the natural world, which means it could be the ultimate biosafety tool. Here’s an essay that discusses why it is necessary to go ahead designing xenobiological systems like XNA and its XNA binding proteins; what the biosafety specifications should look like for this genetic enclave; which steps should be carried out to boot up the first XNA life form; and what it means for the society at large. See essay.
g Imagining - Could "Star Trek"'s Alfa 177 canine exist? Setting aside the facial features that show the canine is an Earth-descended vertebrate, the answer is yes. The Alfa 113 biome the Enterprise crew visits is cold but dry, perhaps a summer plain set below a great continental ice sheet. In cold climates, life forms need to be compact and/or covered in thick hair or fat; this is so with this creature. In addition, the canine's short legs indicate it need not worry about snowdrifts. Based on the creature's canine teeth and jaw structure, it must be a predator; considering the canine's size, it likely preys on creatures no larger than rats - and rodents are quite abundant on the tundra. A lack of claws indicates it doesn't burrow, however, which probably would be necessary in such a climate. Perhaps caves in the area or other creature's burrows provide shelter. As for the antenna upon its head, I'll withhold speculation!
g Aftermath - When considering the prospect of alien life, humankind should prepare for the worst, according to a new study: Either we're alone, or any aliens out there are acquisitive and resource-hungry, just like us. See article.

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