UNEXPLAINED MYSTERIES - Alien life made of interstellar dust ?
Could extraterrestrial life be made of corkscrew-shaped particles of interstellar dust? Intriguing new evidence of life-like structures that form from inorganic substances in space are revealed today in the New Journal of Physics. The findings hint at the possibility that life beyond earth may not necessarily use carbon-based molecules as its building blocks. They also point to a possible new explanation for the origin of life on earth. Life on earth is organic. It is composed of organic molecules, which are simply the compounds of carbon, excluding carbonates and carbon dioxide.
The idea that particles of inorganic dust may take on a life of their own is nothing short of alien, going beyond the silicon-based life forms favoured by some science fiction stories. Now, an international team has discovered that under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organised into helical structures. These structures can then interact with each other in ways that are usually associated with organic compounds and life itself. V.N. Tsytovich of the General Physics Institute, Russian Academy of Science, in Moscow, working with colleagues there and at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany and the University of Sydney, Australia, has studied the behaviour of complex mixtures of inorganic materials in a plasma.
Plasma is essentially the fourth state of matter beyond solid, liquid and gas, in which electrons are torn from atoms leaving behind a miasma of charged particles. Until now, physicists assumed that there could be little organisation in such a cloud of particles. However, Tsytovich and his colleagues demonstrated, using a computer model of molecular dynamics, that particles in a plasma can undergo self-organization as electronic charges become separated and the plasma becomes polarized. This effect results in microscopic strands of solid particles that twist into corkscrew shapes, or helical structures. These helical strands are themselves electronically charged and are attracted to each other.
Quite bizarrely, not only do these helical strands interact in a counterintuitive way in which like can attract like, but they also undergo changes that are normally associated with biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, say the researchers. They can, for instance, divide, or bifurcate, to form two copies of the original structure. These new structures can also interact to induce changes in their neighbours and they can even evolve into yet more structures as less stable ones break down, leaving behind only the fittest structures in the plasma.
So, could helical clusters formed from interstellar dust be somehow alive? "These complex, self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter," says Tsytovich, "they are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve".
He adds that the plasma conditions needed to form these helical structures are common in outer space. However, plasmas can also form under more down to earth conditions such as the point of a lightning strike. The researchers hint that perhaps an inorganic form of life emerged on the primordial earth, which then acted as the template for the more familiar organic molecules we know today.
For years, claims have circulated that red rain which fell in India in 2001, contained cells unlike any found on Earth. Now new evidence that these cells can reproduce is about to set the debate alive.
While this is certainly not a mainstream idea in science, a growing body of evidence suggests that it should be carefully studied rather than casually disregarded.
For example, various bugs have been shown to survive for months or even years in the harsh conditions of space. And one of the more interesting but lesser known facts about the Mars meteorite that some scientists believe holds evidence of life on Mars, is that its interior never rose above 50 degrees centigrade, despite being blasted from the Martian surface by an meteor impact and surviving a fiery a descent through Earth's thick atmosphere.
If there is life up there, this evidence suggests that it could survive the trip to Earth.
All that seems well established. Now for the really controversial stuff.
In 2001, numerous people observed red rain falling over Kerala in the southern tip of India during a two month period. One of them was Godfrey Louis, a physicist at nearby Cochin University of Science and Technology. Intrigued by this phenomena, Louis collected numerous samples of red rain, determined to find out what was causing the contamination, perhaps sand or dust from some distant desert.
Under a microscope, however, he found no evidence of sand or dust. Instead, the rain water was filled with red cells that look remarkably like conventional bugs on Earth. What was strange was that Louis found no evidence of DNA in these cells which would rule out most kinds of known biological cells (red blood cells are one possibility but ought to be destroyed quickly by rain water).
Louis published his results in the peer-reviewed journal Astrophysics and Space in 2006, along with the tentative suggestion that the cells could be extraterrestrial, perhaps from a comet that had disintegrated in the upper atmosphere and then seeded clouds as the cells floated down to Earth. In fact, Louis says there were reports in the region of a sonic boom-type noise at the time, which could have been caused by the disintegration of an object in the upper atmosphere.
Since then, Louis has continued to study the cells with an international team including Chandra Wickramasinghe from the University of Cardiff in the UK and one of the leading proponents of the panspermia theory, which he developed in the latter half of the 20th century with the remarkable physicist Fred Hoyle.
Today Louis, Wickramasinghe and others publish some extraordinary claims about these red cells. They say that the cells clearly reproduce at a temperature of 121 degrees C. "Under these conditions daughter cells appear within the original mother cells and the number of cells in the samples increases with length of exposure to 121 degrees C," they say. By contrast, the cells are inert at room temperature.
That makes them highly unusual, to say the least. The spores of some extremophiles can survive these kinds of temperatures and then reproduce at lower temperatures but nothing behaves like this at these temperatures, as far as we know.
This is an extraordinary claim that will need to be independently verified before it will be more broadly accepted.
And of course, this behaviour does not suggest an extraterrestrial origin for these cells, by any means.
However, Wickramasinghe and co can't resist hinting at such an exotic explanation. They've examined the way these fluoresce when bombarded with light and say it is remarkably similar to various unexplained emission spectra seen in various parts of the galaxy. One such place is the Red Rectangle, a cloud of dust and gas around a young star in the Monocerous constellation.
It would be fair to say that more evidence will be required before Kerala's red rain can be satisfactorily explained. In the meantime, it looks a fascinating mystery.
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