Who’s Out There—Someone Could Be!5 min read

In the astrobiology game of life, we seem to be winning on three fronts—the biochemical theory game, the numbers game, and gaming with computer simulations. So why haven’t we produced life from scratch yet? Why is abiogenesis (or biopoiesis) so difficult to start what is defined as a “natural process by which life arises from simple organic compounds.”
The most likely precursor elements and compounds of life—like carbon, sulfur, iron, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, water, methane, ethane, and amino acids—are found on space debris, meteorites, moons and planets. The left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars and nucleotides common to life on Earth have also been found on meteorites. It doesn’t take much effort for hydrogen cyanide to form glycine and alanine (two amino acids), or for formamide to produce nucleic acids. Under freezing, concentrating conditions, purines or urea can be found. RNA shows self-reproduction and catalytic talents that suggest hypercycles, and,as ribozymes, RNA catalyzes its own chemical reactions. On Earth amino acids and metabolites are found near deep ocean hot vents where sunlight can’t penetrate. They are energized with iron and sulfur, as are the snotite microbes recently found oxidizing hydrogen sulfide in a Mexican cave.
The possibilities for life suggested by these natural biochemical reactions are enhanced by intriguing molecular mechanics, as that seen when clay minerals form long chains and round up into membranes reacting with RNA to form protocells. Extremeophiles found on Earth in both hot and cold environments expand the theoretical, biophysical alternatives available to life. Yet, the question remains—why is it so hard to jump start? Science News June 14, 2014 reports that at the Scripps Research Institute synthetic biologists have created the first organism with a genetic code containing two artificial DNA bases. Once started, is life’s basic code so flexible?
For now, the biochemical game of life seems stuck.. The numbers game, however, is increasingly more positive. We are finding increasing numbers of planets in the Milky Way that might host life. Staring at
250,000 stars in a tiny spot in the universe, the Kepler Space Telescope has already found 2000 exoplanets, fourteen or more orbiting their suns in the habitable (Goldilocks) zone, where water could slosh about on their surfaces.
In a report to the House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Seth Shostak of SETI suggested that our galaxy alone “…could be home to ten to eighty billion Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone, and there are another 150 billion galaxies can be seen with telescopes….” He added that twenty million volunteers in 226 countries are aiding SETI in the search for established life. Though the probably is large that we are not alone, space is huge, as are the number of stars in the huge number of galaxies. Also, time may not be on the side of such a search.
The Drake Equation numbers have grown, leaving small the probability that conditions are just right long enough to produce large forms of life. Microbial life may be much more common. National Geographic July 2014 reports that “…more than a fifth of stars like the sun [probably] harbor habitable, Earth-like planets…and the “nearest could be a mere 12 light years away…” Eighty percent of Milky Way stars are
M (or red) dwarves like Kepler 186f.
Recently Kepler 186f was confirmed as the “…first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone.” (NASA site). Though the planet is 500 light years from Earth in the constellation
Cygnus, it’s reality makes the phrase “we are not alone” suddenly more profoundly meaningful. When future NASA missions—the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope—are launched, we will be able to confirm the existence of more rocky exoplanets closer to Earth and to test their atmospheres, which will tell us something more definite about life possibilities there.
In our solar system we now see life as a realistic possibility in the caves of Mars, in the ocean beneath the ice cracks of Europa, and in the geysers of water spouting from a subice source under Enceladus’s
south pole.
The third game, computer simulation of artificial life, provides hope for the spontaneity of the life process. Chris Adami’s Avida artificial life simulator does computer modeling and robotics, as does Steen
Rasmussen’s Center for Fundamental Living Technology and Christopher Langton’s older Workshop in Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems.
In studying the interplay of computer science and evolution, artificial intelligence and robotic cognition, Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, Charles Ofriaand Norman Packard have applied the basic laws of complexity and chaos theory to the primary problems that the creation of life poses—information storage and retrieval, competition challenges, and the necessity for replication.
The several sources of unpredictability in complex systems suggest why abiogenesis, jump-starting life as we experience it, has been so difficult to repeat or reinvent. The answer may lie in the theory that
self-organization and natural selection play a major role in producing life from scratch, whether or not it begins in warm or freezing biochemical soups. The best—most efficient? or quickest?—biochemical
reactions find each other and crowd out others so that primitive natural selection—a rudimentary auto-catalysis—speeds up the process until self-replication can guarantee survival over the long run.

Author of The Webs of Varok
Nautilus silver award 2013 YA
ForeWord finalist 2012 adult SF
Books, On Writing, Characters and More– ArchivesofVarok.com
Book Reviews– www.goodreads.com/Cary_Neeper
Animal Sentience– www.ladailypost.com
Complexity, Bio, Biblio and Links– caryneeper.com
Astrobiology– astronaut.wpengine.com

Cary Neeper is an avid student of complexity theory, sustainability, steady-state economics, and the impact of cosmology on issues of science and religion. She grew up in the foothills of Hayward, California, where she helped rack dried fruit on her father’s 40-acre apricot ranch. After studying zoology/chemistry and religion at Pomona College and medical microbiology at the University of Wisconsin, she moved with her husband to northern New Mexico, where they raised their family. The Neepers still live in the Southwest with a friendly menagerie of dogs, fish, chickens, geese, ducks and a turkey called Little Bear. Cary plays string bass with local folk, symphony and jazz groups and tennis with local retired physicists. She paints landscapes in acrylics, including the cover art for her first Penscript title, The Webs of Varok. Cary's first novel and Webs of Varok prequel A Place Beyond Man was originally published in 1975 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Dell, and Millington, London. Cary re-released A Place Beyond Man as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition, now available from online booksellers. Its themes of sustainability and interspecies cooperation have now grown into new adventures for its human, elll and varok family as they travel the alternate 21st century Solar System in the five-volume Archives of Varok, coming from Penscript Publishing House in 2012–2014. Cary’s other works include two musical science fiction comedies “U.F.F.D.A.!” and “Petra and the Jay,” as well as newspaper and magazine articles, essays, short stories, and book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like...

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from Astronaut.com.

You have Successfully Subscribed!