Joined: 27 September 2006
By Paul Davies
may be hiding in plain sight. Although they might look like ordinary
bacteria, their biochemistry could involve exotic amino acids or
different elemental building blocks.
Kenn Brown Mondolithic Studios
he origin of life is one of the great unsolved problems of science. Nobody knows how, where or when life originated. About all that is known for certain is that microbial life had established itself on Earth by about three and a half billion years ago. In the absence of hard evidence of what came before, there is plenty of scope for disagreement.
Thirty years ago the prevailing view among biologists was that life resulted from a chemical fluke so improbable it would be unlikely to have happened twice in the observable universe. That conservative position was exemplified by Nobel Prize–winning French biologist Jacques Monod, who wrote in 1970: "Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance." In recent years, however, the mood has shifted dramatically. In 1995 renowned Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve called life "a cosmic imperative" and declared "it is almost bound to arise" on any Earth-like planet. De Duve's statement reinforced the belief among astrobiologists that the universe is teeming with life. Dubbed biological determinism by Robert Shapiro of New York University, this theory is sometimes expressed by saying that "life is written into the laws of nature."
How can scientists determine which view is correct? The most direct way is to seek evidence for life on another planet, such as Mars. If life originated from scratch on two planets in a single solar system, it would decisively confirm the hypothesis of biological determinism. Unfortunately, it may be a long time before missions to the Red Planet are sophisticated enough to hunt for Martian life-forms and, if they indeed exist, to study such extraterrestrial biota in detail.
An easier test of biological determinism may be possible, however. No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself, so if life does emerge readily under terrestrial conditions, then perhaps it formed many times on our home planet. To pursue this tantalizing possibility, scientists have begun searching deserts, lakes and caverns for evidence of "alien" life-forms—organisms that would differ fundamentally from all known living creatures because they arose independently. Most likely, such organisms would be microscopic, so researchers are devising tests to identify exotic microbes that could be living among us.
Scientists have yet to reach a consensus on a strict definition of life, but most would agree that two of its hallmarks are an ability to metabolize (to draw nutrients from the environment, convert those nutrients into energy and excrete waste products) and an ability to reproduce. The orthodox view of biogenesis holds that if life on Earth originated more than once, one form would have swiftly predominated and eliminated all the others. This extermination might have happened, for example, if one form quickly appropriated all the available resources or "ganged up" on a weaker form of life by swapping successful genes exclusively with its own kind. But this argument is weak. Bacteria and archaea, two very different types of microorganisms that descended from a common ancestor more than three billion years ago, have peacefully coexisted ever since, without one eliminating the other. Moreover, alternative forms of life might not have directly competed with known organisms, either because the aliens occupied extreme environments where familiar microbes could not survive or because the two forms of life required different resources.
The Argument for Aliens
Even if alternative life does not exist now, it might have flourished in the distant past before dying out for some reason. In that case, scientists might still be able to find markers of their extinct biology in the geologic record. If alternative life had a distinctively different metabolism, say, it might have altered rocks or created mineral deposits in a way that cannot be explained by the activities of known organisms. Biomarkers in the form of distinctive organic molecules that could not have been created by familiar life might even be hiding in ancient microfossils, such as those found in rocks dating from the Archean era (more than 2.5 billion years ago).
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