Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Aliens Among Us

The other day, I read an article in Popular Science that scientists have discovered alien life. And they didn’t find it on some other planet, a moon or an asteroid; they found it right here on Earth.
Now, don’t get your nerves tied in knots. They found bacteria that is definitely alive, but isn’t life as we know it. Yeah, that old disclaimer. How many times have we heard some scientist say, “Well, if we do find life on ____, it certainly won’t be life as we know it.”?
And they didn’t even have to go off this world to find examples of life as we don’t know it.
When I was growing up, some of my favorite authors wrote about all sorts of aliens, from 3-legged, 3-gendered crabs to creatures where the male was about 1/8th the size of the female, attached himself to her, and his only purpose was to father children. And some tried to imagine creatures that didn’t use biology as we knew it, rock creatures that could move through the soil of their planet, crystals, intelligent energy.
I found them all great fun to read.
What’s so alien about this bacteria they’ve discovered? It doesn’t have the type of biology we are familiar with. It doesn’t eat carbohydrates or protein, and it doesn’t expel the type of waste products an animal or plant would. One strain eats electricity, or rather, electrons. Another expels electrons as waste.
Yes, there are probably several types of these ‘alien’ bacterium. Based on this article, at least two strains have been named, with one graduate student trying to culture at least 20 more. Even that has to be done differently, because it doesn’t grow on petri dishes. You have to supply an electrode of some kind. Or something that they would see as food.
They aren’t really aliens. They are part of Earth’s eco-system, and have been for billions of years. But they are alien from us, even more than the creatures that grow in the super-heated vents of water rising from underwater volcanoes.
That old phrase, ‘life as we know it’, always did irritate me. We would be on a different planet, so why would we expect to find Old MacDonald and Betsy the cow? Why not keep our minds open to all sorts of possibilities, and just see what’s out there?

Something a little smarter than bacteria, I hope.

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