If the magic of life is dazzling here, it is out there too. Among the stars, the search may be difficult, but what about within the catacombs of our mind? If, ‘seeing is believing’, then thinking and understanding is certainly philosophy. Let’s take a fresher look in all that we know of, polish a little, and start a fresh chain of thought. Why not shed the boundaries of scientific disciplines, start at the very beginning, and think, as we walk the walk of life.

Who says the answers are impossible?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

What if they never talk back?

A question has been bothering me for quite some time now and is recently compounded with the discovery of Kepler-22b. As you all may by this time know that Kepler-22b is a planet discovered in the habitable zone of a sun-like star by NASA, as reported on 5th December 2011 through update on their website and press conferences. The discovery got worldwide media attention and excitement in soon to melt down. Watching the news on TV, I was wondering, what to make out of it! Should I rejoice this spectacular find or cry out in utter despise, cursing our own technological infancy?
It may sound crazy, but the fact of the matter is, our hands are tied. God only knows, for how many ages, before definite signs of the presence or sere absence of life comes from the surface of Kepler-22b. It may as well never come, and we might lose interest before it ever decides to reveal to us. The cosmos is too big of a party to date a single planet out there, right?  
However, we may be sure of certain facts that, in future, missions like Kepler will discover more planets in other solar system’s habitable zones. NASA, on its part, has already announced that along with Kepler-22b, Kepler mission has also discovered more than 1,000 planet candidates, some probably in the habitable zone, and need further studies and observations to affirm their actual planet-hood, if you may it say so.
These are short of thrilling news, which comes with the ‘what next’ tag, and unfortunately, that ‘What next’ is centuries of wait from an astrobiological or biochemical perspective!

I remember a complete trivial and non-scientific predicament, quite similar to this one, of my own life, if I try to explain this situation on a lighter note. A year back, when I was still a graduate student in India, I happened to watch an international food show on lobster culinary. The presenter glorified a lobster dish, one of my few favourites, from a downtown Boston eatery. It was so tempting then, that I was feeling the pain of not being there in Boston to enjoy the dish. The anguish of suppressed temptation is always overpowering, for me, it was hell then! Not only, at that time, my savoury foot long lobster was being cooked to perfection at the other side of the world, a mere 8120 miles walk, but also I didn’t have the proper official paper works to come to United States too! I had realised then, that it is far better not to know, than knowing but not having it.
However, my dream came true within one year. I had my lobster in that very same eatery in due course and regretted my year old devilish temptation over the first few bites. Well, it truly didn’t take me long for fulfilment, if you consider one year is just a joy ride around the sun, but what about an astrobiologist’s eagerness with Kepler-22b? Aren’t we at the very brink of similar excitement, in just thinking, that there could be intelligent life, out there, in this particular planet or others, which Kepler mission is discovering? The very thought of a galactic long distance call and a sweet replay of an encouraging hallo is enough to die for from that maverick planet, isn’t it?
However, the basic facts are too discouraging, not from an astronomical, but astrobiological angle! Just consider these preliminary NASA observations. Kepler-22b’s orbital period is 290 days around its host sun-like star, which is slightly smaller and cooler than our own Sun. The planet is 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and whether it is predominantly rocky, gaseous or of liquid composition is yet to be determined and will probably take a few decades to find out. You can find more details on NASA web page (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepscicon-briefing.html). These facts, for sure, should make us speculate that probably Kepler-22b is the one we have been looking for. Now, if you are an Astrobiologist and want to look deeper with your magnifying glasses, then you are asking for trouble. Your lobster hunt for intelligent life on this planet, if there is any, will take a ride of 600 years, if you are cruising at the speed of light!
Far discouraging than anticipated!
 However, on a brighter note, these Kepler mission discoveries are giving fantastic proof that planets are probably more numerous in the universe than previously thought. As more and more of them will be fished out from the habitable zone of stars, we can safely imagine that they will have liquid water on their surface for carbon or silicon based biochemistry to take shape, and their surface temperature would be cordial to sustain these reactions. Indirectly, it does give a significant push to speculative astrobiology, and some centuries henceforth, probably, we could declare that Solar system was not, after all, a mere cosmic accident. Now, if we are not in a mood to wait a millennia for answers and are adamant about a quick reply in our own lifetime, the best which can be done, and I am quite sure of it, is SETI will be locking its big gun Allen Telescope Array (ATA) on these new found planets for any sign of artificial radio activity (More details on SETI Institute’s initiative at their website -http://www.seti.org/node/905).
Still, there are problems, as I have mentioned at the beginning of this article. What if the civilizations out there are in no mood to explore? What if there are mostly hermit kingdoms out there in the universe?  
Let’s take an example. Why not go back in space and time (again!) and try to understand what I am trying to imply.
Consider that you are in a planet X, in some different solar system, light years away, five thousand years behind present time. Now, with your own Kepler mission, you have discovered the Planet Earth in the habitable zone of a star, which apparently will be our good old Sun. Your computers and algorithms will undoubtedly tell you that this planet is most likely habitable; biochemistry will be possible and probably is teeming with life, after it has analysed all your astronomical data. Excited, your next move, will be to look for radio activity of artificial or intelligent origin in this particular astronomical coordinates. With all your advance telescopes, siting, say some 300 light-years away from earth, soon you will be an extremely disappointed scientist! There won’t be anything to listen to!
Instead of five thousand years, if you crank up your clock ahead by four thousand eight hundred years and again try to listen, still you will have nothing to report to your own world. Disheartened, you may conclude that probably earth could be habitable with lots of scepticism in your mind based on your astronomical data, but you can never envisage an intelligent species on this third planet from the Sun. However, down here, at the very time of your observation, pyramids were being built; the human civilization was discovering the fun of creativity through the renaissance, and minds like Newton, and Galileo were establishing the foundation of modern physics for a future space faring race. Of course if you live two hundred years more, your experiment will be successful. Still believe me, if I were in your boots, I wouldn’t have wasted 600 years of my scientific life on a single planet, as there are 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe and probably a few zeros less are the number of planets in their respective habitable zones to look for my prized results!
There is also a discouraging possibility of speciation in a planet never crossing into the complexity of multicellular life. It may have been the case with Mars. In such a scenario, it is well possible that the universe is actually timing with life but is mostly confined in the microbial forms. The other fascinating possibility is that there could be intelligent multicellular life out there somewhere, but they are not interested in exploring the universe, rather still, are unaware, in every sense, that there could be other celestial bodies out there like their own in the universe! Their home planet could have a perpetual cloud cover; or life could be of permanently living in an icy world.
Consider the case of Europa. Europa is thought to have an outer layer of water, some 100 km thick, with a frozen-icy upper crust. The liquid water beneath could well be a salty liquid ocean, as shown by recent magnetic field data from Galileo orbiter. Ambient temperature maintained by under water volcanoes, saline water, abundance of organic molecules from bombarding comets could easily jump start a biosphere in Europa’s oceans. You can even consider extremely complex intelligent life out there if evolution happens to play the predator and prey game, in the same fashion, as it has played on earth. Yes, it is a fact that the evolution of complex intelligence is related to the predatory game. I am planning to write about it in my next post. Coming back to the topic of discussion, such a hypothetical intelligent life in Europa will hardly ever need to feel the pain of celestial isolation as their life will be confided in the boundaries of a saline ocean with an icy canopy. For them, probably, there are no stars out there to look for beyond the ice and no Kepler-22b to write on. It’s even worrisome to imagine, that if intelligent life on earth were also ocean dwellers could we ever have envisioned a space programme?
Therefore, the point is quite straightforward. We look for because we were mesmerised by the stars for ages. Firstly, they were a subject of curiosity, secondly they became a matter of study, and finally, they became a destination for exploration. We simply explored to start with, because we had a clear sky to look up to. Believe me; others in this universe may not be so damn lucky! 
So, what do we do? Wait for someone to contact us first? Well, that certainly is not what astrobiology is all about. Obviously, discovery of an intelligent counterpart of ours in the cosmos will be a holy grail, but that sounds more as a prologue to sleazy intergalactic politics, funky trade and travel than pure astrobiology.  Astrobiology, in a nut shell, stands for defining a living universe. Its main goal is not finding intelligent life in the universe, but if I may say so, is to delineate the rightful place of life in context to the evolution of the universe. It final accomplishment will be framing a theory of life, which; I think can be integrated within the framework of physics and can trace the root of life from the inception of the big bang.
Than what is for us, poor biochemist, to do? Well, the answer is easy, let’s explore in, not out, for the time being. If we think that we could wait for NASA to build us a spacecraft to take us to Kepler-22b for real field job, then we are asking for too much, and too soon. Let our grandchildren or their grandchildren fight for that.
For us, let’s look down and ask, ‘Do we know our own icy world any better than the universe out there?’ A planet, with a third of its surface covered with water has enough places for field experiment to determine ancient panspermia. The water world of the earth is still a mostly uncharted territory. Not all the niches are well understood, particularly the deep pockets within the ocean beds. If panspermia ever happened in this planet, in all possibilities, it happened in our oceans. The stakes are quite high. Not only will the comets carrying, organic precursors, have more probabilities of landing in the oceans than on earth, more so, water with its ambient temperature and solvation will be more cordial in sustaining biochemistry of an alien origin. So, if you think it is out there, it is unquestionably out here, somewhere, waiting to be found.
Now it is for us to decide whether we will leave the glories of astrobiological discoveries to our future generations and enjoy the sun, with a glass of bear, on the beaches of Atlantic or take a deep drive in the Atlantic ourselves.
What do you say?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

‘Elementary my dear Watson’- Evolution, its Fate, and Some Simplistic Thinking.

There are times when we all feel that we are so close to the truth, but we cannot explain them to others for the want of suitable evidence. Astrobiology also has the same predicament. Sometime, every researcher in biochemistry and astronomy feel that it’s all out there, but the humongous scale of the astrobiological research and observational disparity always becomes a deterrent. It’s unfair to associate such unjust thoughts to the modern researchers; even the ancient philosophers and thinkers faced the dilemma when it came to universal life!
Going back in time, if you happen to study the antediluvian cave arts, which are mostly of pre-biblical ages, stars and celestial bodies formed an important part in their subjects. Star maps were extensively drawn, and many of our ancient Gods had their names derived from astral bodies. Reasons behind such paintings have different explanations in modern times and scientific literature. Theories ranging from the pictorial depiction of the only possible navigational source our ancestors could perceive of in those times, to far fetching possibilities of star travellers paying a visit to earth in those times and teaching our forefathers where, and what, to look for in the dazzling night sky are there to subscribe to. I have no intention today to prove, or disprove these theories. Neither will I go into a discussion of what is the meaning behind these ancient arts forms could be. However, I would like to emphasize, that whatever they were meant to be, they did show that the question of universality of life must have bothered our fore fathers as they are doing us now. Otherwise, our Gods won’t have been believed to be living in the stars!
Now, look at the tragic side of this age long quest. With more than thirty thousand years of brain storming, we are still at the same shore, waiting for the ferry of proof to surface in the horizon, which will say that we are not the only living thing in this universe!  Can it ever be proven otherwise? I am an optimist and with the pace of the present research, and all those back to back NASA and EASA missions, that someday could be any day in our life time itself, who knows!
Still, I feel it may not always be a billion-dollar experiment and deep-space exploration where lies our only hope and conclusion to this quest. We can anyway take the path of philosophy as a second option or as a backup plan. It is well said by someone, that where science ends, philosophy begins!
Now, please don’t get me wrong on this. I seriously do believe in deep-space explorations. They are the best evidence seeker we currently have and what we are getting out of them as a source of direct results can never be supplemented with top notch philosophical thinking. A comprehensive outcome of such experiments is well covered in an article in the New Scientist recently, (Introduction-Astrobiology) and I won’t be copying from that article to enrich my thoughts. What I really want to drive home today is a simple thought, that for poor souls like me, and the substantial population of thinks out there who believe in astrobiology and don’t have elaborate, trillion-dollar setups to explore the cosmos, can still investigations in the universality of life, holding the hands of elementary philosophy and intuitive thinking! Let me show you how!
Let’s make a voyage in space and time in our thoughts! Why not go back down the time dimension, to a period when time was toddling itself! Yes, I am talking about the big bang here! Can we take a joy ride from there to today’s time, with an open eye, understanding every single change and event, which took place over the course of this duration?
Believe me, it will be a fun tusk and finding out resources for this journey is also not difficult! If you don’t have access to high end scientific literature and journals for your research, some books like the ‘Elegant Universe’ by Brian Greene or any book on the big-bang theory could well be your guiding beacon. 
Now all set, try to follow the evolution of the universe from the time of the big bang, to the formation of first and next-generation stars and galaxies, through the origin of solar system, planets, life and finally to the inception of consciousness and intelligence here on planet Earth. Leave everything else out; only follow this story and its different epochs.
 What are you seeing now? It will be a bit complicated, but we can make it simple in the terms of chemistry and round-the-mill physics. In the beginning, you will see the primordial plasma of extreme energy density with high temperature and pressure, which will explode to end the singularity (complete breakdown of physical laws) and giving rise to the first elementary particles, the basic building blocks of the universe just after the big bang. The elementary particles then, in turn, with their relativistic speed, in an expanding univers, will tip the balance of matter over antimatter once and for all, paving the way further evolution. The expanding, but rapidly cooling baby universe, in due time will become suitable for the formation of Protons, Neutrons Positrons and Electrons (Spare me for not going into the details of how). Now, you will witness that the universe is coming out of the realm of pure particle physics as it will brace itself for the next level of molecular complexity. Protons and Neutrons will be combining to form Dueterium and Helium, though a vast majority of the Protons will still remain as Hydrogen nuclei. The simplistic nature of these early events will soon take a turn towards complexity of the galactic scale. Gravitational pull among the molecules will locally condensed them into colossal plumes of gaseous clouds. Here, for the first time, you will witness the birth of the first galaxies and the star cradles. When increasing gravitational pull condenses these clouds to extreme high density, where hydrogen molecules can randomly collide and initiate fusion reaction, the first ray of light will sparkle in the universe, and you will see the birth of the first star! To cut a very long story short, all stars in the beginning will be making Helium by the fusion of Hydrogen atoms. Over time, as the Hydrogen core of these stars will get depleted of their fuel, new fusion reaction will commence. Heavier elements like Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus, Sulphur and other candidates of the periodic table will start showing up for the first time. Over the process of this cosmic nucleosynthesis, in the course of a few billion years, you will witness many solar births and supernovas and slowly but surely, you can collect almost all the elements you have ever known.
Until now, you were in the realm of inorganic chemistry. No one is sure when and how, these primary elements, or at least some of them, will decide to spin the complex network of biochemistry. In one crossroad of your journey, you will witness simple bio-molecules, capable of tolerating the torturous harshness of the interstellar space start appearing. You can sample Methane, Methanol, Formaldehyde, Polycyclic aromatic, Ammonia, Carbon dioxide, and if you have good detection skills, and you are lucky, you can even find diamonds and fullerenes!
Did it happen before the birth of the solar system, or the Earth? Definitely yes, they were out there, larking in minimal concentration in the interstellar medium, in the nebula and comets. When earth and its likes came into being, these biomolecules landed in quite a proportion on the planetary surface through bombardment of the comets. These seeded planets, with their cordial geology and atmosphere, acted as giant incubators and catalysts to sustain these biomolecules to reach their destiny of brewing biospheres out of inanimacy.
Ok, now that we have covered the boring part of universal history, let’s dig into some fascinating stuff ahead! Zoom your thoughts into Earth’s past. Isn’t it pages out of some science fiction, the last three and a half billion years, you see before yourself? From simple biomolecules, you are witnessing the evolution of the most advance living species on the planet, with a complex level of consciousness, unprecedented in history. This particular species is the magnum opus of the evolution. They have skills which, in a way, were altogether changing the direction of planetary fate, even the nature of biochemical evolution on the earth. They were directing evolution themselves, like God, you may say so!
No, I am not planning to take you into the pages of theosophy or bring into the topic of evolution versus intelligent design here. My intention is to frame a simple question, ‘Whether, the evolution of intelligence, in any species, is written in the code book of genesis as an important and unavoidable milestone? And whether this intelligence is actually necessary for further evolution of the universe?’
The solution lies in understanding the design and definition of life as an open thermodynamic system, with the capability of information processing for sustainability and further evolution.
Now, if you try to quantitate the state of an evolution, considering the level of information processing as an important parameter, you will conclude that the progress of man as a species, in the last millennium, is not completely dependent on inherited biological skills! There are other complexities beyond his cranium capability, which he has developed to supplement his own information-processing requirements to progress further. You could see that the advent of silicon-based intelligence, or in simple terms computers, are actually becoming part of the evolutionary process of humans.
Was this some short of a grand accident in favour of human? Alternatively, this could be an inevitable outcome of any complex evolutionary process, where, at some epoch, carbon-based biochemistry, (since this is abundant in the universe) will eventually invent composite silicon-based chemistry, to handle the burden of increasing load of information processing. In time, the former will aid in the step by step evolution of the letter as a subsidiary to organic life, and finally will get completely outcompeted and outnumbered to the Frankenstein of their own making. Thus, will begin a new era in universal evolution!

Science fiction staff, right? Well, I won’t blame you from thinking so, as it does sound like an extremely outrageous possibility. However, there are few points in it, which cannot be overlooked.
 Firstly, if life has to jump start from scratch anywhere in the universe, there will always be a limit to its evolution, however hard life may try! Say in earth, 3.5 billion years of life’s evolution does have created millions of species, but all of them are completely adapted, thus enslaved, by the conditions which the planet has provided over the ages. They cannot tolerate any type of conditions which are beyond the planetary extremes. So, if the evolution of life has to progress further, beyond the planetary horizon, they need to evolve out of bonds of their restraining chemistry and think of more durability in sustaining themselves. Therefore, somewhere down the line, they will evolve skills in directed evolution. If you are thinking, why life need to go beyond its planetary borders, then you should remember, that a complex and highly evolved life would need a colossal amount of energy to survive, which, may well be beyond the capability of the home planet alone.
Secondly, keeping to the point of energy consumption by life, and considering the Kardashev scale of advancement of civilization with the progress in evolution (See the link for details. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale), we can see that a level two and a level three civilizations will be harnessing the energy output of their respective stars and galaxies. It is quite impossible to assume that this can be done by life forms of any particular type or kind, without the aid of artificial and complex systems. Again, there is a need of directed evolution here!
Third point will be tricky! We have to guess a little on what is the actual goal of evolution of life and intelligence in the universe is, with the supposition that this is not a lone accident here on planet earth. In such a scenario, if it is assumed, as many have told before, that the final aim of life in the universe is related to complex information processing and storing for an unknown reason, related to the evolution of the universe per see, then, in due course, any life, where ever it may have evolved, need to break its bond with its parental home and spread out into the depth of the universe to achieve its goal. How can it do it alone?
So, what does all this discussion lead us to?
Probably, you may think, that I have just got too far with this blog! However, for me, by telling you the story of directed evolution and the predictability in evolution of artificial computation, I may have been able to convenience you of certain things. If, in the search of extra-terrestrial life with intelligence, someone is expecting to find a wired creature, or a humanoid green man, they may be quite wrong somewhere and missing something.
 Considering an advance civilization, which can transverse the length of the universe and are interested in us. Then, instead of flying saucers, probably, we can even expect them to be burst of energy, representing complex coded programmes, urging to communicate in mathematical language, as seen in so many Arthur C Clarks novels!
Why not? It will be the best bait, in every sense, for any civilization to get transformed into coded information themselves to travel long universal distances (remember teleportation in Star trek?). It is the simplicity, and energy economy of the whole idea that’s made this proposition so interesting! If being alive is processing information, then the best way to live is by being information itself! You don’t need a fragile biochemical system to keep you alive, you don’t need to be something complex, and you can travel at the speed of light, zooming through the galaxies looking for listeners and waiting to get downloaded. Fun isn’t it?
If you’re thinking these are 21st century thoughts from science fiction writers like Arthur C Clark and likes, then look at this passage from Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text of Hinduism.

vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya
navani grhnati naro 'parani
tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany
anyani samyati navani dehi

Translation-As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.

Surely, I won’t spend any more time to correlate the ancient concept of non-destructive soul with the modern concept of universality of consciousness and beyond. Is it not self-evident? What would you say?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The importance of being a virus

Last week, when we were discussing panspermia, viruses came by as a passing entity in my blog. You can call it my nostalgia for my graduate research or, with a pinch of salt, consider it to be an inevitable parameter whenever panspermia is the topic of debate!
Which way ever it may be, today, I will keep to the viruses and try to clear their name of all wrong doing a bit. The other day, I saw a wonderful article on Astro-virology (Does the name sound uncanny?) in Astrobiology Magazine (In Search of Virus Fossils). To be frank, I was really taken away by the article and the kind of research undertaken by Dr. Ken Stedman of Portland State University and his colleagues. To give a brief about their research, they well be searching for viral fossils, yes, you got me correct, in high-silica hydrothermal ecosystems and evaporative brines, two distinct ecosystems, which have earlier produced quite a few microbial mysteries and shocks. It should also be noted, in the author’s own words, ‘these will be probable ecosystems, where we will be searching for life in other planets’.
Truly, the role of hydrothermal vents, underwater volcanoes and extreme saline environments in the origin of life in earth and other astral bodies like Europa and Titan cannot be ruled out. So, discovery of viral fossils in such an environment will definitely be the icing on the cake, obviously you have to get hold of the cake first anyway.
Now coming back to the topic of my discussion today, that where do viruses stand with respect to panspermia? We sure can stumble upon some interesting facts. Though, in every sense, a virus is an inanimate entity outside its preferred host, but their strange attributes and importance in shaping the Earth’s biosphere can hardly be overlooked from a biochemical perspective.
If you happen to imagine a living subject as a CD player, you can safely attribute the viruses to be the CDs playing your favourite songs. The CDs have the songs and information written on to them in a strange language of leaser cut dots on silicon surfaces. Nobody can read them, or play, until you through them into your CD or DVD player, and then they literally become your favourite singer, directing your Boss sound blasters to buzz in your favourite lyric!
 Strange analogy, isn’t it?
 If you happen to probe deeper, you can see more similarities! Your favourite CD player, with all its complex electronics is never invincible, whereas, a CD is! It can survive the test of time in a more durable fashion, owing to its simplistic design, compared to your favourite musical electronics.
Now, when we humans can think of such an innovative way of storing and immortalizing information, why not life itself can come up with something like that? After all information shuttling and processing is an integral characteristic of biosphere itself. Believe me, life did such a thing, and viruses are the most possible answer that comes to the mind!
Ok, now wait a minute, what am I saying? Viruses are only known kill, right? So how can they be a medium of information transport? And why the hell, biosphere, or life itself, will use such a vicious entity for any good, you may as well ask.
In that situation, we need to go down a little on understanding what life actually stands for. In my previous blog, in passing, I have remarked that for life, as a concept, an individual centric benefit is never considered important, when the matter concerns the welfare of the whole species or the biome. True to every sense, viruses are nothing more than killing machines, but they do provide evolutionary challenges to their host. More so, viruses, like the one which gets integrated into the host genome, may shuttle new traits in or within species, which the host may not be able to acquire through sexual reproduction or round the mill evolution. Recent reports even show that 8% of human genome is made up of retroviruses having quite dubious and unmapped functions. This process of viral genome integration into the host is called endogenization, and has been in action for millions of years.
 If you are in a mood of exponential speculation like me today, you can as well think that the traits, which we humans are so proud of called intelligence, could be fallout of such processes of viral endogenization over our close primate ancestors! An interesting report in the Journal Nature (Bornavirus enters the genome) talks about the remarkable story of Bornavirus which cause neurological disorders in human. Its clinical manifestations range from psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression in patients. This virus causes infection by integrating into human genome. Now, in a sublime sense, if you consider the evolution of human intelligence as a stable and desirable physiological outcome over our nearest siblings in the primate world, it won’t be a matter of wonderment, at least for me, if it is discovered some day, that it all happened through some retroviral endogenization into the human genome, few million years back, which the other primates fought back!
Anyway, it does seem from all this discussion that I may have been able to convince you all that probably, viruses are not so bad an entity to start with, but what about panspermia? Well, it might also have a role in that too!
It will be an insensible gesture to jump to conclusions, like; all new viruses which emerge suddenly and create havoc in our lives are coming from the stars and because of panspermia. No, that’s not a possible to sell easily. To sustain a stable infection in any species, a virus has to use molecular mimicry and full-on deception to enslave the host system. The virus can only do so, if it knows its host or some related species inside out, over many generations through prolong coexistence and competitions. The viruses, which would be important to panspermia would be minimalist and would be far flung from the complex SARCs or HIVs. It’s not so difficult to understand why.
Consider the possibility of origin and evolution of life in any other plant in our solar system excluding Earth. We can as well consider Mars in this example. In such a scenario of life evolving in both the sister planets of  Earth and Mars, in parallel, a few billion years ago from a similar starting biochemistry, it’s will be hard to believe that both the biospheres will have the same attributes over time. There will be radical divergences, owing not only to their cosmic separation, but also depending on the path evolution will proceed, taking into account geological, atmospheric and other allied factors in these two planets. The game of predator and prey would be common to sustain a food or energy chain in both the biospheres, and you could also imagine Martian viruses with their unique parasitic life cycle. Depending on the host these viruses will be thriving on, there will be an array of their repertoire and thanks to the advantage of reductionism in viral survival concept, these predators will far outnumber their pray by a factor of 10 (a mere conservative estimate).
In a situation such, let’s consider this scenario. One fine day, a colossal meteorite strikes the surface of Mars. Its impact creates a massive creator on the surface of the planet. Rocks are sputtered like sharp nails all over and some of them gaining escape velocity leave the planet for good. Now, these rocks become meteorites and space debris themselves and start orbiting the void of space getting tugged, one way or the other, by the gravitational pull of other planets. Some of them in a distant future are destined for the nearest planet earth, because of the orbit they will take eventually.
Now, these rocks may, or may not be completely barren pieces of debris. Before the impact, they may have been the niche of a thriving Martian microbial biome. Therefore, all the life associated with the rock will also take this astral ride. In due course of time, the heat generated by the meteorite impact, cosmic radiations, absence of any life sustaining atmosphere in deep space and other factors will mostly sterilize the rock of any life. Few specimens may survive, if they go into hibernation of spores or are in concealed protective pockets inside the core of rock. Who knows, but the odds are far against them. Anyway, by the time these rocks land up in Earth in a few million years, (here again you have to consider the extreme temperature produced by the entry event of the rock into earth atmosphere) they will be completely void of life, and one can only hope to see traces of microfossils, and organic residues, if probed deeper with sophisticated instruments. Reading all this, you may as well conclude that this is a lost case of failed panspermia, but is it?
What if, if we consider that those rocks, along with microbial ecosystem, before the impact, also had Martian viruses? In our earth, consider any environment; viruses outnumber microbes 10 to 1. So will it be true for our imaginary Mars biosphere to?
 With a conservative estimate on an alien biosphere, if we reverse the odd to 1 to 10, then also a large population of these hypothetical viruses will be taking this cosmic ride to earth. Being inanimate outside their host, their chances of safely reaching earth intact is exponential compared to Martian microbes.
Now, here comes the important question, will they be able to sustain a panspermia?
This answer, I have tried to justify in my last blog. To say in a few words, ‘It’s complicated!’ The advance Martian viruses won’t. For them, the native earth population with its divergent biochemistry will prove to be a bigger and impossible challenge (Think of playing a CD on a cassette player). However, you cannot rule out the minimalist ones. The simpler a virus will be in biochemistry, the easier it will be for it to adopt to a new host in an alien world, though there will be a billion failed attempts anyway. Here, for the first time, the odds are high in favour of a successful panspermia, because, you are not talking about a biochemical invasion of a different world by a protein, nucleic acid or a lipid molecule but by a successful, proven and tested replicator.
Is it possible?
 Well, maybe, who knows! It may well be happening, now also, in some isolated environment here on earth.
Can we find such Astor-viruses ever?
Well, it will be a crime to say no, but the experimental design to discover them will be tricky. Here, we are not talking about any ordinary virus, but a class of extreme predators, who would be not only quite simple in biochemical architecture, but will also have a less prominent phenotypic expression. They will hardly compromise their host to extinction, for if they do so, their own existence is gone for good and all the cosmic travel of a few million years is of no use.  However, they will still have their distinct signatures. Remember one thing, since they are of other worldly origin, there will be definitely some level of divergence. It could be in their use of unnatural amino acids for their protein, use of out of ordinary purines and pyrimidines in their genetic code or strange replication models. Only time can tell where will be the differences.
Until then, let’s hope for the best and stop fearing that viruses are coming from the space to kill us all! Such thought can be too good for science fictions but disaster for pure biochemistry. What do you say?

Monday, 31 October 2011

Panspermia and the paradox of reaching out

So, last week it was just interesting talking it out with you all. I think the time for introduction is over, now starts the real job of sharing with you all, as I think. So, what shall I be writing today? Something interesting will definitely do. Let’s make a deal. Every week, henceforth, as I steal a little time, we will pick up something, and then work down through it into the rabbit hole of unknown. I tell you it will be fun digging out, how deep it may go!
Then, what for today? Let’s go down to some basics on panspermia and some trouble it may face over the course of time. Problems, it could encounter in getting established, in the first hand, in a new world and in its future, as it gets established. One problem, as I can think of right away, is a beautiful notion, which we may say of as, ‘Life dissolves life, and over time, absolves the uniqueness!’
 Among all the unique attributes of life, one, which is the most dramatic to all, and at a direct longer head with panspermia, is undoubtedly the phenomenon of reaching out. Well, you may think this a crazy! As, we all know, to jump-start a successful evolution of beingness, reaching out is never in the forefront. Since, as I told yesterday, I have some uncanny views.
If you probe deeper, you will see, until molecules decide to reach out to one another, there can never be a dogma of a complex life! This strange perception is reciprocated in the biosphere from the tiniest entity of the building blocks of life, to perhaps, in the complexness of human consciousness, where a social living constitutes a favorable evolution dynamics in any advance species.
 Reaching out has its own up and down hills in short, and broad perspectives of evolution. Any step taken towards complexness, will produce a fascinating hierarchy in speciation. These may be extremely beneficial for one class, but may turn out to be a collateral damage creator for the others, belonging to the same niche.  It may even lead to a competition for supremacy, or an environment of complete chaos!   
If I have confused you, have an example. Consider a virus. In all possibilities, it is inanimate outside its host. It does evolve, or you may say survives, when it comes in intimate molecular contact with its target host. The virus, not only benefit and survive doing so, it also evolves in this process. The host, on the other hand, beats the retreat, in most cases, at the cost of its own existence. Having the process of host-virus interaction repeated, over and over again, in a prolong time scale, would generally lead to the evolution of complex pathogen and over compromised host. However, if you say so, this fascinating story always starts with the inevitable reaching of the pathogen to an unsuspecting host.
The amazing thing in this whole saga is unveiled if you look far deeper! Sometimes, the compromise in the host’s existence is well written, long before the actual event of the attack. The causes of submission to the pathogen, in most cases, are parameters and players hidden within the host itself!
 In my graduate research, I used to work on a protein, called a movement protein. It’s a plant viral magnum opus. Without this protein, the virus could not navigate a step within the host. They are like the advance scout of a dreaded army for the viruses. They will first hijack the host machinery, clear the intercellular contacts between the cells, and then tugging the virus or its whole genome in their toe, will spread the infection in the complete system of the unsuspecting plants.
The regular animal viruses will never have them; their mechanism of travel is completely different, which you can find in any text book.
 However, the most amazing thing with these movement proteins is their invincibility in any cell type. Clone them into any cell culture of your liking; be it animal, plant or insect, they will generally do the same drill of DNA transport, through extensive and sly molecular contacts within the host.
 They are ultimate socialites of the molecular world, and their mantra of success is nothing but their intuitive ability to reach out, creating an enormous interaction mesh with the host proteins and players, mostly disguising as friends. In scientific literature, they are loving nicknamed, the Trojan horses.
However, there is another angle to this story too! If you ask, where these movement proteins came from in the first hand, you will be astounded! They are the long-time descendants of a group of plant transporter proteins itself. These plant proteins generally go about doing logistics inside the cells. Their cargo varies from nutrients to genetic materials. Somewhere, during the course of coevolution of the viruses and the host, the viruses enslaved some of these proteins, tamed them according to their need and came up with these vicious movement proteins.
So where does these story lead do? No points for guessing! When this remarkable chemistry could happen between two organisms in the same vicinity, what about the broader perspective of life and panspermia?
Let’s think in this line for a while, the remarkable biochemistry, which shaped life on earth is interwoven intricately, based on the theory of interactions, right? Now, whatever may be the individual centric outcome, it has been a driving force for evolution in this planet and the biosphere. The only place, until now, we know life to have existed for the past 3 billion years or so.
 Taking life on earth as our model experiment, we can speculate that this is happening elsewhere too, whenever the situation is cordial for life to evolve, catapulting on the process of reaching out, knitting complex life forms. New exoplanets are being discovered every day (A comprehensive list could be found in http://exoplanets.org/). Now, if you are an ardent believer in panspermia, and you are following the recent trends, you will know for sure, that there is a growing agreement in scientific community, that life can travel in astronomical space and time, hitching a ride on comets and asteroid. Who can forget the famous case of Murchison meteorite and all the discoveries and controversies associated with it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murchison_meteorite)? More so, panspermia could have seeded the primordial building blocks of life on earth and have jump-started the biosphere, thus is the current hypothesis. We may also assume that this process has been happening many times over in the planetary history, and even now in full swing.
In a situation such, if a foreign biological entity happens to land on this plant, (I am not talking here about the little green men in fancy flying saucers, but about complex molecules, which can hitch a ride on astral rocks), what would they do to survive? The answer is too obvious to explain. They, in all possibilities, will take the only way know to life to get established. First, they will interact with the local molecules, and if these interactions are fruitful based on parallel biochemistry, they will ultimately get integrated within the native complexity. Over a time scale, it will be hard to fish out these alien molecules, and all traces of panspermia will be erased!
Then, how do we go about finding them and proving panspermia does happen? Detecting bio-molecules in exotic meteorites and the vacuum of space will be not enough. Then why not take the easiest approach of all. Look into the interaction map of the bio world and try to find out the discrepancies? 
If we go after the most social elements in the protein kingdom, the ones, which have a strange evolutionary history, fascinating pattern of interaction within the cell proteome, unknown pattern of origin, could it lead to somewhere?
It’s hard to tell, but not difficult to speculate. Probably hidden, in the genome of every species there are candidates which have troubled biochemist for ages. Rogue proteins, exotic elements of unknown function, strange motifs, the candidate could be anything. These alien may be well evolved to get hidden in the native crowd. However, if it has to have something to do with the fact of being alien, it will have one character that will make it stand out from the rest. It will still try to snoop around, the way it used to do when it first arrived on this planet. It cannot hide for long, it nature to get established through interaction, following the ancient rule of reaching out will make it obvious. Only time can and will tell.
So, it’s time we too stat snooping around a little. What do you say?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

To say, or not to say!

So, here I am, with my first ever blog account, completely blank minded!
There have been so many thoughts, which have sprouted in the past few years, I always wanted to pen down and share. Views, ideas, desire and frustrations, you name it. Now just look at me! As I am seating in front of my desk, steeling time from my research, I have nothing to say!  Is it common? Do all of you who write here regularly face the same predicament? To write, or not to write? To explore one’s own creative self, or to hide in a cocoon in the unexplored mazes of thought?
The second option sounds so tempting. The fantasy of getting lost, time and again, in one’s thoughts and hiding from others is marvelous. No one is there to criticize, no one to fish out the pure illusions, which, I can call my dream. No one to disturb in this self-imposed exile of candid brain storming.
However, there are times of desperation, times of suffocation in it too!
For sublime thoughts seldom like to remain stagnant in a single soul. Good, bad, cool or repulsive, whatever they may be. They will like to have their say in others. Selfishness with thoughts only kills them. I knew long enough that, however, should I try; I need to come out one day with them. That fine day, came to me with this blog account today, and I promise to do justice with it.
Now every expression has to have a self behind, so does this one too. Well, to be absolutely frank, I am a pure nobody! It has its own benefit of being a cipher in the crowd. In time, you do become a good observer. You can think of me as someone, who had never really tried to express, but has grasped with ardent interest everything that goes in his field of passion and beyond. I am a sizzling canvas of memories, colorized with mesmerizing thoughts, hiding from the dogmatic world, with a strong craving for an expression. The tides of thoughts finally had their way, and here I am.
So, the next question, which is obvious is, in case you are interested in visiting this blog more often to see me, what would you be expecting?
Well that’s easy to explain for now. I am a man of the molecules. Those, whom you generally like to call a biochemist. My fascination with the essence of life, has earned me a PhD sometime back and like a dedicated husband, I am still running with and around them, somewhere in a nice lab, located in a long island next to the big apple.
 So, is this a journal of an opinionated biochemistry? No, not to the best of my knowledge. As, I mentioned before, I am blogging stealing time from my regular research. So, such a thief is never expected to do justice with what he is thieving from. I will like to walk of-road from my scheduled thoughts; peeping beyond the borders of the sensible science. I will explore the dogma of ancient and forgotten science, deal deep into the theories of how life came in to being in the first place, and whenever possible try of fathom a bit into astrobiology.
Does it sound interesting? Maybe, or maybe not. However, there is no harm in listening to a hermit biochemist, right? So where is the harm in writing anyway?
For most scientists, it is always the predicted path we generally like to take, fearing for career, which earns us our bread and butter. Time and again, noble thoughts are ignored in concern of rejection and ridicules from our colleagues, and the close knit scientific community. Well, not very uncommon in other fields too, so science has never been an exception. Suddenly, from nowhere, these tucked away ideas have their way out, taking shape into theories.  New paradigm gets established.
How many times have we thought, that how much it took it to get them established in the first hand, and how many people may have thought about it before, came to the same daring conclusion and then rejected in silence, before someone got the courage to express?
So, am I one of those courageous lots? May be not! Though, I have my own views on certain aspects of biogenesis and biochemistry, which I have seldom shared. That’s what exactly I want to do here, along with a lot of discussion on things going on, in this subject, in and around. What is my own take on these things may not matter much to most of you people, but at least something interesting, like a solid foundation for discussion may come out of it.
That’s why I am so excited and hope you will be too if you have a chance to read me in the future. Sometime, I may be completely wrong and naive. Rebuke me, if you need and do criticize a lot. I feel, it will be a nice and enjoyable joy ride for all of us. So, why shy away from writing and discussing. Why not start the game.

In the words of a famous oriental (Bengali) writer, in translation,, let me finish the end of a new beginning of my journey.

Today before I go;
Let me say, “What is so?”
If there be no meaning for the rest;
Let, most of you never pay attention at their best.
Today let me take a ride at large;
Though the ocean of thoughts, at the very surge.