Space & Innovation

Simple Synthetic Cell Could Aid Hunt for Alien Life

The identification of core genes needed for life may not only spill secrets of how biology got its start on Earth, but also shed light on the hunt for life beyond the planet.

The identification of core genes needed for life may not only spill secrets of how biology got its start on Earth, but also shed light on the hunt for life beyond the planet.

In a milestone study published in this week's Science, a team led by the J. Craig Venter Institute reports on the creation of a bacterial cell containing a minimal number of genes needed to live and self-replicate.

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By shrinking the genetic code, scientists hope to learn the details about what keeps organisms alive and healthy, information that eventually will be applied to human health and longevity In the process, analysis of the cell, known as JCVI-syn3.0, may wind back the evolutionary clock to reveal processes from life's start, both on Earth and potentially on other worlds.

"We may be seeing some processes that occurred early in evolution," said microbiologist Clyde Hutchison, lead author of the Science paper.

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"It's going to be very interesting looking at the different (gene) functions that now exist and what it takes to put together a living, functioning, self-replicating cell to see where they all came from and how earlier life might have developed," Venter Institute founder and chief executive Craig Venter told Discovery News.

"My view is when you have the same chemical constituents they seem to always get together to form the fundament building blocks of amino acids and the bases of DNA and RNA, so I am certain that life is inevitable wherever those chemicals exist and we will find life ubiquitous throughout the universe when we can ever get far enough away from Earth," he said.

The team's technique to design, build and then test the genome also has potential applications for identifying alien life.

"This entire program started with ones and zeros (in a computer) and four bottles of chemicals," Venter said.

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"We've proven we can send this life through the Internet as code and rebuild it somewhere else, so if we sent a DNA-sequencing machine to Mars and there's DNA there, we could readily discover that code and just ship it back at the speed of light to Earth," he said.

Syn.3 turns out to have 473 genes, but Venter and colleagues cannot pin down exactly what 149 of them actually do to support the cell.

"We hope in the near future to have everything defined in the cell so we truly understand it but when you're shooting in the dark, like we were with one-third of the genes, it's a lot of trial and error," Venter said.

This artistic rendering shows an early Earth, including some of the components for what may have sparked the earliest life forms. Revelations surrounding the simplicity of a cell created in the lab may help us reveal how life formed on early Earth and the potential for life elsewhere in the cosmos.

The prospect of seasonal liquid water flows on the surface of Mars instantly revived discussions about whether the planet most like Earth in the solar system could host present day life. But it’s not the only place where scientists are looking. At a congressional hearing this week, scientists listed their top four candidates for extraterrestrial life in the solar system. Other researchers are scanning radio and optical emissions from distant stars to hunt for technically advanced civilizations. In the future, scientists plan to look for chemical signs of life in the atmospheres of planets circling nearby stars. Here’s a look at the most likely spots for life among Earth’s neighbors.

Photo: The SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array (ATA) hunts for radio signals from intelligent alien life in our galaxy.

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Without hesitation, NASA's chief scientist Ellen Stofan told lawmakers that Mars is her top candidate for finding life beyond Earth. "We now know that Mars was once a water world, much like Earth, with clouds and a water cycle and indeed some running water currently on the surface. For hundreds of millions of years about half the northern hemisphere of Mars had an ocean possibly a mile deep in places," Stofan said. "Life as we know it requires liquid water that has been stable on the surface of a planet for a very long time. That's why Mars is our primary destination in our search for the life in the solar system," she added. NASA's next rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, will be outfitted with instruments to look for ancient microbial life, though Stofan, a geologist by training, believes it will take astronauts on Mars, cracking opening rocks and running experiments, to make the definitive discovery.

Photo: Scientists have found recent evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars in the dark narrow streaks that cut into cliff walls all around the planet's equator.

Mars Water: Follow the Toxic Stream to Find Alien Life

The Jupiter moon Europa is roughly the size of Earth's moon, yet it hosts a salty ocean that has twice as much water as Earth's oceans. The Europa sea contacts a rocky core, which presents suitable conditions for life to brew. The moon also has abundant sources of energy. That leaves one big question in the search for life: Does it have organics? A mission targeted for launch in the 2020s will attempt to find organics that have welled up from the sea into cracks on the moon’s icy surface. It also will search for a mysterious plume that may be behind a 2012 Hubble Space Telescope detection of water vapor above Europa’s southern polar region. Scientists also want to know how deeply the ocean is buried beneath Europa's frozen crust. "That will be important for coming up with a strategy to search for life there," Cornell University planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine told the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology. "There's a lot of groundwork that has to be done on Europa ... if there are fresh organics in the cracks, that’s a good place to go," he said.

Photo: Artist's illustration of a plume of water vapor shooting off the icy surface of Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moon Europa.

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One of the biggest surprises from NASA’s Cassini mission at Saturn was the discovery of plumes shooting into space from the moon Enceladus, now known to host a global subsurface ocean. "Make a list of the requirements for terrestrial-type life -- liquid water, organics, minerals, energy and chemical gradients and Cassini has found evidence for all of them in the plume," said Cornell University’s Jonathan Lunine. "The most straightforward way to look for life is fly through the plume, which Cassini has done lots of time, with modern instruments that can detect signatures of life," he said.

Photo: Light reflecting off Saturn illuminates the surface of Enceladus and backlights the plume in this April 2013 image.

Enceladus Has Potentially Life-Giving Hydrothermal Activity

Saturn's largest moon Titan presents intriguing prospects for life, though it likely would be very different than anything found on Earth. It is the only moon in the solar system with a thick, protective atmosphere. Cassini and its companion Huygens lander revealed a world with methane clouds, rain, gullies, river valleys and methane-ethane seas. "We cannot resist asking whether some biochemically novel form of life might have arisen in this exotic, frigid environment," Cornell University's Jonathan Lunine said. "Titan is a test for the universality of life as an outcome of cosmic evolution." To look for life, Lunine said a spacecraft would likely drop a capsule into a Titan sea so that can float across the surface and make measurements. "We don't know what we're looking for here, so a generalized search for patterns and molecular structures and abundances that indicate deviation from abiotic (non-biological) chemistry is appropriate," he said.

Photo: Scientists assembled this mosaic of near-infrared images of Titan taken by the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft.

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So far, we only know life exists on one planet, Earth, but scientists don't know how it started or even if it had one or more false starts before ultimately taking hold. "Since Earth remains for now the only instance of an inhabited planet, the search for life also requires that we further develop our understanding of life on Earth," NASA's lead scientist Ellen Stofan said. "We know life is tough, tenacious, metabolically diverse and highly adaptable to local environmental conditions," she added. Scientists have discovered microbial life that consumes what would be considered toxic to others and life that can withstand radiation, cold, heat and other extreme conditions. "We do know that life evolved very rapidly here on Earth after conditions stabilized. That's a factor that makes us optimistic that there's life elsewhere in the solar system," Stofan said. Clues about how life started on Earth may be preserved on the moon, which holds the geologic record of the first billion years of Earth. "That's the time that life began on Earth. To understand what was happening geologically, we can do no better than turn to the moon," Cornell University's Jonathan Lunine said. "We really have no laboratory model for how life began on the Earth," he added. "One of the reasons for going out to environments in our solar system where the conditions for life are apparently there and possible is to see whether life actually began, to do the experiment in the field rather than in the laboratory." "It is remarkable that we have found four destinations in our solar system where life may actually exist, or have existed for quite some time in the past. Now is the time to actually go search," he said.

Photo: The far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, crosses between the Deep Space Climate Observatory and Earth.

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