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NASA’s amazing discovery of alien life – in California

NASA at California's Mono Lake

When NASA announced last week that it had a new discovery "which would impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life," the media clamored for details. But when the space agency finally unveiled the news that it had found alien life in the form of a microbe with previously-unknown DNA that that feeds - oddly enough - off of arsenic, journalists were unimpressed. They were hoping for ETs on another planet, and so were disappointed when it was "just" microbes found in Mono Lake in California.

But, along with news of water on the moon (which I wrote about here and here), this new DNA form is another case of our low-horizons media filing an exciting discovery under "ho-hum". As Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City College of New York, points out in the Wall Street Journal, "To the scientific community, this was a spectacular result. It means that every biology textbook now has to be revised. Even the very definition of life may have to be changed." He notes:

The discovery raises the possibility that "shadow" life may exist on earth—and perhaps even on other planets. There might be other microbial life forms out there that have, over billions of years, been forced to modify basic DNA in order to survive in toxic environments. There will now be a surge of scientific interest in finding new variations in the DNA molecule, and also finding new organisms that exploit these mechanisms. Arsenic-based DNA are, one hopes, not the only exotic forms of DNA in the universe.

Kaku writes that, in light of this discovery, NASA is likely to re-consider its program to find life on Mars, as well as its investigations of the moon of Saturn, Titan, or the moon of Jupiter, Europa. He also notes that there is the possibility of industrial applications.

I love the fact that this discovery was sitting under our noses, as it were, in California - we just didn't know what we were looking at. The lesson is that it's not the material in itself, it's our knowledge that enables us to understand and use resources differently: just as in ancient Rome, when coal was used jewelry and was not imagined as a source of energy (as Brendan O'Neill points out here).

I also like the dialectical interaction between our understanding of Earth and other bodies in space. Just as this discovery will have us re-examining soil samples from Mars (because we will now be looking at them to find something else), likewise future discoveries on other planets and moons are likely to increase our knowledge of our own Earth.

Kaku ends his piece with the wonderful line from a 16th-century playwright who, without having our advantage of knowing how much our development of science and technology can lead to unexpected discoveries, urged us to be open-minded about human possibilities:

There more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  

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