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US NRC Advocates Search For 'Weird Life'

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Wed, 18 Jul 2007 10:15:52 -0400
Archived: Wed, 18 Jul 2007 10:15:52 -0400
Subject: US NRC Advocates Search For 'Weird Life'

Source: Kansas City infoZine - Kansas, USA


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Life Elsewhere In Solar System Could Be Different From Life As
We Know It

Science & TechnologyThe search for life elsewhere in the solar
system and beyond should include efforts to detect what
scientists sometimes refer to as "weird" life - that is, life
with an alternative biochemistry to that of life on Earth - says
a new report from the National Research Council.

Washington, D.C. - infoZine - The committee that wrote the
report found that the fundamental requirements for life as we
generally know it - a liquid water biosolvent, carbon-based
metabolism, molecular system capable of evolution, and the
ability to exchange energy with the environment - are not the
only ways to support phenomena recognized as life. "Our
investigation made clear that life is possible in forms
different than those on Earth," said committee chair John
Baross, professor of oceanography at the University of
Washington, Seattle.

The report emphasizes that "no discovery that we can make in our
exploration of the solar system would have greater impact on our
view of our position in the cosmos, or be more inspiring, than
the discovery of an alien life form, even a primitive one. At
the same time, it is clear that nothing would be more tragic in
the American exploration of space than to encounter alien life
without recognizing it."

The tacit assumption that alien life would utilize the same
biochemical architecture as life on Earth does means that
scientists have artificially limited the scope of their thinking
as to where extraterrestrial life might be found, the report
says. The assumption that life requires water, for example, has
limited thinking about likely habitats on Mars to those places
where liquid water is thought to be present or have once flowed,
such as the deep subsurface. However, according to the
committee, liquids such as ammonia or formamide could also work
as biosolvents - liquids that dissolve substances within an
organism - albeit through a different biochemistry. The recent
evidence that liquid water-ammonia mixtures may exist in the
interior of Saturn's moon Titan suggests that increased priority
be given to a follow-on mission to probe Titan, a locale the
committee considers the solar system's most likely home for
weird life.

"It is critical to know what to look for in the search for life
in the solar system," said Baross. "The search so far has
focused on Earth-like life because that's all we know, but life
that may have originated elsewhere could be unrecognizable
compared with life here. Advances throughout the last decade in
biology and biochemistry show that the basic requirements for
life might not be as concrete as we thought."

Besides the possibility of alternative biosolvents, studies show
that variations on some of the other basic tenets for life also
might be able to support weird life. DNA on Earth works through
the pairing of four chemical compounds called nucleotides, but
experiments in synthetic biology have created structures with
six or more nucleotides that can also encode genetic information
and, potentially, support Darwinian evolution. Additionally,
studies in chemistry show that an organism could utilize energy
from alternative sources, such as through a reaction of sodium
hydroxide and hydrochloric acid, meaning that such an organism
could have an entirely non-carbon-based metabolism.

Researchers need to further explore variations of the
requirements for life with particular emphasis on origin-of-life
studies, which will help determine if life can exist without
water or in environments where water is only present under
extreme conditions, the report says. Most planets and moons in
this solar system fall into one of these categories. Research
should also focus on how organisms break down key elements, as
even non-carbon-based life would need elements for energy,
structure, and chemical reactions.

The report also stresses that the future search for alien life
should not exclude additional research into terrestrial life.
Through examination of extreme environments, such as deserts and
deep under the oceans, studies have determined that life exists
essentially anywhere water and a source of energy are found
together on Earth. Field researchers should therefore seek out
organisms with novel biochemistries and those that exist in
areas where vital resources are scarce to better understand how
life on Earth truly operates, the committee said. This improved
understanding will contribute greatly toward seeking Earth-like
life where the conditions necessary for its existence might be
met, as in the case of subsurface Mars.

Space missions will need adjustment to increase the breadth of
their search for life. Planned Mars missions, for example,
should include instruments that detect components of light
elements - especially carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and
sulfur - as well as simple organic functional groups and organic
carbon. Recent evidence indicates that another moon of Saturn,
Enceladus, has active water geysers, raising the prospect that
habitable environments may exist there and greatly increasing
the priority of additional studies of this body.

NASA sponsored the report. The National Academy of Sciences,
National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and
National Research Council make up the National Academies. They
are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science,
technology, and health policy advice under a congressional
charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency
of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of
Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Copies of The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems will
be available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-
3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at www.nap.edu. The
cost of the report is $27.50 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of
$4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy.

[Thanks to Greg Boone for the lead]

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