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?

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?