≡ Menu

Alien Life May Not Be So Alien – If It Exists At All

Our galaxy has exoplanets, organic compounds, liquid water -- even a nebula shaped like DNA -- but is there life? (Image credit: M. Morris/UCLA)

Are we too hopeful in our hunt for extraterrestrial life? Regardless of exoplanet counts, super-Earths and Goldilocks zones, the probability of life elsewhere in the Universe is still a moot point — to date, we still only know of one instance of it. But even if life does exist somehow, somewhere besides Earth, would it really be all that alien?

In a recent paper titled “Bit by Bit: the Darwinian Basis for Life” Gerald Joyce, Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA discusses the nature of life as we know it in regards to its fundamental chemical building blocks — DNA, RNA — and how its ability to pass on the memory of its construction separates true biology from mere chemistry.

“Evolution is nothing more than chemistry plus history,” Joyce said during a Public Library of Science podcast.

The DNA structures that evolved here on Earth — the only place in the Universe we know for certain that life can thrive — have proven to be highly successful (obviously). So what’s to say that life elsewhere wouldn’t be based on the same basic building blocks? And if it is, is it really a “new” life form?

“Truly new ‘alternative life’ would be life of a different biology,” Joyce said. “It would not have the information in it that is part of the same heritage of our life form.”

To arise in the first place, according to Joyce, new life can take two possible routes. Either it begins as chemical connections that grow increasingly more complex until they begin to hold on to the memory of their specific “bit” structure, eventually “bit-flipping” — aka, mutating — into new structures that are either successful or unsuccessful, or it starts from a more “privileged” beginning as an offshoot of previous life, bringing bits into a totally new, immediately successful orientation.

With those two scenarios, anywhere besides Earth “there are no example of either of those conditions so far.”

That’s not saying that there’s no life elsewhere in the Universe… just that we have yet to identify any evidence of it. And without evidence, any discussion of its probability is still pure conjecture.

“In order to estimate probabilities, we need facts,” said Joyce. “The problem is, there is only one life form. And so it’s not possible to estimate probability of life elsewhere when you have only one example.”

Voyager included a golden record with images and sounds of Earthly life recorded on it... just in case. (NASA)

Even though exoplanets are being found on a nearly daily basis, and it’s only a matter of time before a rocky, Earthlike world with liquid water on its surface is confirmed orbiting another star, that’s no guarantee of the presence of alien life — despite what conclusions the headlines will surely jump to.

There could be a billion habitable planets in our galaxy. But what’s the relationship between habitable and inhabited?” Joyce asks. “We don’t know.”

Still, we will continue to search for life beyond our planet, be it truly alien in nature… or something slightly more familiar. Why?

“I think humans are lonely,” Joyce said. “I think humans are like Geppetto — we want to have a ‘real boy’ out there that we can point to, we want to find a Pinocchio living on some extrasolar planet… and then somehow we won’t be such a lonely life form.”

And who knows… if any aliens out there really are a lot like us, they may naturally be searching for evidence of our existence as well. If only to not be so lonely.

Listen to the full PLoS podcast here.

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • TheMatrixDNA May 16, 2012, 10:27 AM

    Alternative form of life? We can try another approach. Today nobody could accept that the cellular organelles are forms of life. because they are part od cell system. But… if the symbiotic hypothesis of Margullis is right? Ribosome, Mitochondria, chloroplasts, till the nucleolus were micro-organisms? If so, each one could evolve to specific life form? Today nobody could accept that astronomic bodies are life forms. Because their constitution seems so single and they belongs to stellar and galactic systems.

    The formation of the first cell system was different from the formation of modern cells. The cells does not need those millions years of abiogeneses because they learned to replicate themselves. If the formation of the first galactic system was different also from the formation of modern galaxies? I mean, the first galaxy was formed by symbioses?

    There is a natural mechanism that could be the solution for the process of symbioses for both, cells and galaxies: life cycle. If a different life form – one that seems to us a inanimated object or/and non-able to replicate – is under this mechanism, the object will be transformed into several different shapes, like a human body under this mechanism shows the forms of blastulae, embryo, baby, adult, etc. So, any molecular complex compound like a ribosome, under this mechanism could be transformed into mitochondria, cloroplast, all shapes of organelles. it is easy for seeing this if we think the different shapes of anumal specie under evolution, from reptiles to fish to mammals. Now suppose that before galaxies and even stellar systems origins, there were a unique kind of astronomical body, but, under the process of life cycle. Its transformations could be from planets to pulsars to stars to quasars, black holes, etc. Since that there is a conexion link between two sequencial shapes of any individual, this conexion is the responsible for symbiosis.

    It is weird to think that a kind of inanimated natural object could be under the process of life cycle. But there is a possibility, and it came from natural light. The electomagnetic spectrum of light shows that any laight ray or wave has seven diffferent frequencies. it means seven different speed of vibrations. Applied over a natural object, dense enough that the light can not escape, but it is not destroyed, each kind of vibration could perform different effects over that object. Maybe a light wave has the code for life, if the seven different vibrations can generate seven different shapes of a unique object. So, it is not weird at all.

    Now, think that the radiation of light from the Sun creates seven different fields of vibration around it. Seven different orbital fields. There is only those two intermediates orbital suited for the seeds of life being nurtured, because the initial ones are too much rapid and the last ones are too much slow. The planets in these orbitals are Earth, Mars, maybe Venus? Now suppose that a star is like an onion, each level is about each stage of its formation. It should means that the Earth surface receipts seven kind of photons, each one as bit of information of a shape of a life cycle. In another words, all seven shapes of photons together are the seed of life. The Earth nucleus must have at least the initial 50% of those bits, which reaches the surface through volcanoes, ocean vents, etc. Then we have the appropriate land for the seeds evolving. And the process of fecundation is like our sexual process; half of information coming from the sun, another half coming from Earth.

    Finally, which were the previous information for the first biological life? When I calculated what could happen to an initial astronomical body under the process of life cycle because it does not permit the escape of light, I got the existent another known six shapes. Those seven kind of bodies could be linked by the invisible connection of time, like a human teenage can be linked to its adult shape. But, doing it my models showed that the seven astronomic bodies are aligned like a circuit of a system, and, surprising, the system has the same shape of a lateral pair of nucleotides, the fundamental bit of information for RNA and DNA. So, the previous information for the first biological life form is the information about astronomical systems, whose that really created life inside them.

    Researchers has experimented all possibilities of miligram of RNA and not got a life form. What is missing in those RNA? The work of those photons? Inside terrestrial atoms they can work like a religion can work a human brain: changing the atoms normal behavior for to build a copy of the celestial system they came from. At my website there are the models of Matrix/DNA formula, the astronomical system under the force of life cycles, the electromagnetic spectrum as the code for life, etc. It could be everything wrong, but, I think is good food for thought in different ways like we wull need for to recognize different alternatives life forms.

hide