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We Have Met the Aliens and They Is Us
June 13, 2008 12:08 PM   Subscribe

The Cosmic Womb: Recently published findings from researchers with the Imperial College London’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering seem to bolster the case for extra-terrestrial sources for the origins of life on Earth. (A PDF of the published results can be downloaded here, if you want the technical specifics.)

As this news is only the latest in a series of findings favorable to their cause, Panspermia theorists everywhere may be starting to feel just a little bit cocky about their recent track record.

Previously related MeFi posts here, here, and here.
posted by saulgoodman (27 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
And lo, God's breath came from the sky and...

CUT! There's no air in space.

And lo, God's finger came down and impregnated the...

CUT! Impregnating with a finger?

And lo, God's penis...

CUT!

And lo, God's finger touched the Earth and life sprouted and it was good.
posted by DU at 12:20 PM on June 13, 2008


I don't think these results do anything of the sort. Yes, there are amino acids in space, but so what? The press release from Imperial College (where I took my degree in biochemistry a long time ago) makes no sense. Amino acids are not alive; they're just very simple organic chemicals. When life first started making use of amino acids, sure, maybe some came from space and some were created in the oceans. The leap from this simple fact to ZOMG! SPACE ALIENS! is very difficult to understand. There is nothing here to suggest an extraterrestrial origin of life.
posted by nowonmai at 12:24 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Does finding amino acids in space rocks really bolster the theory all that strongly? Your Panspermia link features rather more dashing hypothetical astronauts, such as bacteria, spores, and seeds. The difference would seem to be akin to that between the earth being pelted by iron molecules and the earth being pelted by Volkswagens.
posted by dyoneo at 12:26 PM on June 13, 2008




Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing... and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand.

“Get back from those controls, Bat Durston,” the tall stranger lipped thinly. “You don’t know it, but this is your last space trip.”
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:32 PM on June 13, 2008


The team found amino acids in two ancient meteorites called CR chondrites, which were found in Antarctica in the 1990s. By analysing the carbon content of these meteoritic amino acids the scientists were able to determine that, unlike Earth based amino acids which prefer a lighter variety of carbon, their samples where made from a heavier carbon which could only have been formed in space.

I'm not sure why that necessarily means the amino acids are extraterrestrial. If Earth-native archaea or bacteria consume the heavier carbon and other minerals in the meteorite and make amino acids from that carbon, those amino acids didn't come from outer space, even if the component atoms did.

The xarchiv PDF seems garbled, but the abstract text suggests that the (uncommon?) chirality of the amino acids is also evidence. But, again, that seems to suppose that the chirality of protein manufacturing was the same for life billions (?) of years ago as it is today.

Is there anyone familiar with their research who can comment?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:34 PM on June 13, 2008


The press release from Imperial College (where I took my degree in biochemistry a long time ago) makes no sense ... The leap from this simple fact to ZOMG! SPACE ALIENS! is very difficult to understand. There is nothing here to suggest an extraterrestrial origin of life.

Did you read the PDF of the published report? Also, you're probably 100% correct. But I want to be perfectly clear: The suggestions about life's extra-terrestrial origins, etc., etc., don't reflect my own interpretation of the results, but in fact, only how the results are being promoted to the press and the rest of the world, seemingly by the university and the researchers themselves. However, the results are still favorable to the cause of Panspermia theorists in any case (who don't argue anything as reducible to childish invectives as ZOMG! SPACE ALIENS!) because the results are consistent with the expectations of such theorists, and while not offering any definitive proof of the Panspermia hypothesis, the results do bear out some of the predictions proponents of the theory have offered to support their ideas about the composition of meteors and other space debris. I'll stop manhandling my own post now.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:01 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


It is not at all hard to believe that amino acid molecules may have originated from somewhere other than earth. All of the metals on earth, in our entire solar system) heavier than iron, including all the gold and silver, came from a supernova explosion. There is no natural process currently operating in our sun or anywhere else in the solar system that can make these elements.

Yet we have them, in impressive abundance. Given that the supernova in question would have to have predated the birth of the sun itself, it is not difficult to imagine that at some point in the history of the nebula that birthed the sun there was once a source of some slightly more complicated molecules. We're talking about multiple stellar generations here.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:31 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'd agree that before we get all ZOMG ALIENS the organic material should be double, triple, and quadruply tested to conform that it is not, in fact, bullshit.
posted by Artw at 2:37 PM on June 13, 2008


I did skim the PDF, and whilst I'm hardly an expert on such matters, I entirely believe that these amino acids are of extraterrestrial origin. Specifically, these are not the kind of amino acids that are found in living organisms. Both the presence of amino acids with side-chains that are not commonly used in terrestrial organisms, and especially the presence of amino acids with the "wrong" chirality for us Earthlings suggest that (a) they came from wherever the meteorites came from rather than being lab contamination and (b) they have nothing to do with life (as we know it).
I will point out that the PDF does not discuss in any respect the notion of panspermia or an extraterrestrial origin of life by any other name. The science here is several steps removed from the crazy notions that life originated elsewhere.
Simple organic compounds such as amino acids exist in space, and sometimes come to Earth via meteorites. I think we knew this already, and I'm not sure how much this paper has advanced that knowledge. But as the famous Miller-Urey experiment shows, it's completely plausible for this stuff to have arisen on Earth as well. Life arose in an environment with a bunch of organic molecules, some that came from space, and some (probably the vast majority) that were created on Earth.
An interesting question is whether any of the chemicals that were essential for life to get going right at the beginning could only have arisen in outer space, or whether they could have arisen on Earth. However, it's not that interesting; as Pastabagel points out, we already know that all the heavier elements on Earth (by which I mean almost all of them) necessarily originated in the core of a star - it's ALL from outer space when you get down to it. But we will likely never know the answer to this even if we ever know what the first replicating molecule actually was. To show that a precursor could never have existed on the Earth without hitching a ride on a meteorite is to attempt to prove a negative.
The leap from here to life originating on other planets is immense. I like dyoneo's analogy. The phrase "extra-terrestrial sources for the origins of life on Earth" is the kind of ambiguous woolliness that can bridge the gap to crackpot notions like Panspermia. There is no reason to think that life on earth originated elsewhere, and this research has done nothing to change that fact. Yes, some organic molecules may have come here on meteorites, but that tells us nothing new about the origins of life on Earth. That a lunatic fringe will undoubtedly seize upon this and twist it to fuel their sci-fi fantasies about life traveling from star to star across the cosmos is regrettable.
posted by nowonmai at 3:56 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


So basically the press release is a few organic molecules of spin clinging to a meteorite of actual results?
posted by Artw at 4:18 PM on June 13, 2008


God I miss the days when science reporting didn't always have to be "sexed up".
posted by Artw at 4:19 PM on June 13, 2008


Well, that's certainly my opinion of it. If you reread the press release carefully, it is reasonably careful to stick to the facts, but the whole thing turns to crap on the next step through the news cycle:
We may all be space aliens: study!!!!!!!!!
We may be extraterrestrials after all!!!!!!!!1!
posted by nowonmai at 4:31 PM on June 13, 2008


I don't think these results do anything of the sort. Yes, there are amino acids in space, but so what? The press release from Imperial College (where I took my degree in biochemistry a long time ago) makes no sense. Amino acids are not alive; they're just very simple organic chemicals. When life first started making use of amino acids, sure, maybe some came from space and some were created in the oceans. The leap from this simple fact to ZOMG! SPACE ALIENS! is very difficult to understand. There is nothing here to suggest an extraterrestrial origin of life.

nowonmai: are we reading the same press release? There is no metnion of space aliens.

The phrase that seems to be hanging people up here is "extra-terrestrial," which the poster uses, but the linked press release does not. The term simply means "did not originate on earth." Whether the extra-terrestrial material is inorganic or organic does not refer to space aliens. If there is water on Mars or amino acids on ancient meteors, that simply means "extra-terrestrial organic matter" exists: nothing more or less. The "panspermia" theory that the amino acids or other organic material on meteors that crashed to earth millions of years ago may have helped kick-start life on earth has nothing to do with space aliens, and it's not at all a far-fetched idea (although it will require far more evidence than we presently have to become established as fact). Could meteors carrying the residue of organic matter have crashed into earth before organic matter had developed here, and could the organic matter on these meteors have begun the process of organic evolution on our planet? Certainly. Is one such meteor with proven traces of amino acids verification of this possibility? No, but it's a start. I for one welcome our amino-acid overlords.
posted by ornate insect at 4:44 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


We are reading the same press release, ornate insect. I'm not sure where I claimed that the press release mentioned space aliens, but I apologise for that error.
I think we are also reading the same MeFi post: "We Have Met the Aliens and They Is Us ... extra-terrestrial sources for the origins of life on Earth ... Panspermia theorists everywhere may be starting to feel just a little bit cocky". That's why my comment included the ZOMG! SPACE ALIENS! bit.
It's possible we are both reading the same stories on the newswires which clearly and specifically mention space aliens.

It is my understanding, and certainly the gist of the linked space.com article, that "Panspermia" is all about life being widespread throughout the universe and life on Earth being seeded by living organisms that have travelled here from another star system. That does indeed have to do with space aliens.

The paper and the associated press release linked to in this post, of course, do not have to do with space aliens, and on that I am glad we agree.
posted by nowonmai at 5:07 PM on June 13, 2008


all about life being widespread throughout the universe and life on Earth being seeded by living organisms that have travelled here from another star system. That does indeed have to do with space aliens.

To nitpick somewhat, the existence or inexistence of extra-terrestrial organic matter (water on Mars, amino acids on meteors) does not have to do with space aliens. The reason this is important to the matter at hand is because the claims of the press release are more modest than you may be letting on: the claim is that the amino acids on the meteor might, within the realm of theoretical possibility, be causally linked to the development of life on Earth. Certainly there is some evidence now to support this, although we are a long way from proving the theory.
posted by ornate insect at 5:22 PM on June 13, 2008


Quite. And the wording of the press release is not misleading, but somehow people who read it are coming away and writing headlines along the lines of "We are aliens". (see: this post, and the two stories I linked to above.)
The paper itself, of course, does not even address the idea that extraterrestrial molecules were involved in kick-starting life on earth; it merely reports that some meteorites are rich in presumably extraterrestrial amino acids. Everything beyond that is fantasy.
posted by nowonmai at 5:29 PM on June 13, 2008


Fair enough, but strictly speaking if extraterrestrial molecules were involved in kick-starting life on earth, then we are aliens [i.e life on earth has an "alien" origin].
posted by ornate insect at 5:35 PM on June 13, 2008


Well, strictly speaking everything on earth is of extraterrestrial origin (since the earth was made from space-stuff that was previously something else) but at this point it's just getting silly.
I think different people will have different ideas of what the word "origin" means in this context. For example, let's pretend that the first "life" was some kind of RNA molecules, of which the pyrimidine precursors had all come from meteors, but the uracil and cytidine ribonucleotides had subsequently been assembled on Earth and finally incorporated into RNA. That's the kind of thing we're talking about. I wouldn't say that means life on earth has an "alien" origin, any more than I'd say the same thing because all the carbon, oxygen, phosphorus and nitrogen atoms were all made in stars. But other people might use the language differently, and be no more right or wrong than me, I guess. I mean, we're all stardust, but that's not news.
posted by nowonmai at 5:51 PM on June 13, 2008


Maybe this animation helps to explain the kind of thing the researchers found....
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 10:05 AM on June 14, 2008


In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
---Carl Sagan
posted by DenOfSizer at 11:15 AM on June 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, strictly speaking everything on earth is of extraterrestrial origin (since the earth was made from space-stuff that was previously something else) but at this point it's just getting silly.

Oh, okay, well, I'll take the word on where to draw the line on silliness from someone with too much of a stick up his ass to recognize a goofy, but basically harmless joke ("The Aliens... is Us") when they see one. The whole point of that joke, anyway, was to suggest that we and other terrestrial lifeforms are in a sense "aliens" in that our development may not have been possible without the introduction of materials not present for a significant part of Earth's early geologic history, not that alien life forms were involved.

Quite. And the wording of the press release is not misleading, but somehow people who read it are coming away and writing headlines along the lines of "We are aliens". (see: this post, and the two stories I linked to above.)
The paper itself, of course, does not even address the idea that extraterrestrial molecules were involved in kick-starting life on earth; it merely reports that some meteorites are rich in presumably extraterrestrial amino acids. Everything beyond that is fantasy.


Is "Fantasy" blow-hard speak for "conjecture" or "hypothesis"? By your standard, every scientific hypothesis that hasn't yet been experimentally verified is "lunacy" and "fantasy." Anyone with far-fetched ideas about the world (like that crazy guy who speculated about visible light being reducible to constituent parts, or that other one who rambled about what it might be like to ride astride a beam of light) is a charlatan.

...is all about life being widespread throughout the universe and life on Earth being seeded by living organisms that have travelled here from another star system

Actually, ornate insect is right. What you describe is only a subset of Panspermia Theory. Panspermia theorists include both proponents of the strong claims that life is ubiquitous throughout the cosmos and Earth was seeded by microorganisms of extraterrestrial origins, and proponents of the much weaker claims that basic but indispensable elements of living DNA are extraterrestrial in origin. And there are proponents of many other subtle variations on those themes as well.

For example, Francis Crick (think of him what you might, there's no doubt he knew the science better than you do and was in a much better position to sound off on what ideas should be banished to the domain of the lunatic fringe), was a proponent of an especially strong form of Panspermia known as Directed Panspermia, which maintained that the seeding of life throughout the universe may have been intentionally carried out by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

These results may be relevant to legitimate Panspermia Theorists (and the Raelians and their ilk are the exception--Panspermia Theorists are not nut-jobs, but qualified, earnest and committed research scientists). Or they may not. I don't know, but I suspect there may be some interest in those quarters. I don't really care. I'm just a guy who thinks this an interesting area of inquiry, not a believer.

In either case, it's really a shame to see some here so casually dismissing an entire emerging field of study with a wave of their hands just on account of what I can only assume is a temperamental hostility to novel ideas.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:44 PM on June 14, 2008


Here's a slightly more nuanced overview of what Panspermia's about than the Space.com offering linked in the original post.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:47 PM on June 14, 2008


Do you also believe in alien abduction, morphic fields, cold fusion and homeopathy? IAMTA.
posted by nowonmai at 1:20 PM on June 15, 2008


sure, nowonmai. i also believe in acupuncture, the therapeutic value of chiropractic care for nervous conditions, that circumcision causes brain damage and that america was founded by pilgrims fleeing religious persecution. don't be an ass. this post wasn't supposed to about what i believe--and it wasn't supposed to be about what you believe, either, but then, i guess it is now.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:15 PM on June 15, 2008


Another discussion of how this supports the weak Panspermia (or pseudo-Panspermia) argument here on Scientific American.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:56 AM on June 17, 2008


Thanks for posting that last link; it's an example of good science journalism which eschews hyperbole in favour of a more measured assessment of the facts. Getting the opinions of other experts in the field is always a good idea.
posted by nowonmai at 1:08 PM on June 17, 2008


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