Category Archives: Astrobiology

Auld Lang Syne: May We Look Back at our Present Endeavors in Space with Pride


Artist Concept Voyager 1

“The Voyager spacecraft were built and continue to be operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. The Voyager missions are a part of NASA’s Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.” Image and caption credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When the first humans venture beyond the Solar System, our present-day experiences with the Voyager and Pioneer craft will be remembered as watershed moments. Our space craft presently experience a space environment that would harm human tissue and would dampen the spirits of the hardiest souls. The specific case is how Coronal Mass Ejections of the  Sun are experienced by the these craft. In spite of the fact that the Voyager craft are entering Interstellar Space–the craft are experiencing the effects of the CMEs.

So raise a champagne glass, a beer mug, or your cup-of-joe to these space craft–for Auld Lang Syne.

–Or experience the video from JPL.

JPL | Videos | Play video: Voyager Experiences Three ‘Tsunami Waves’ in Interstellar Space.

LUCA—What does it mean and why is it important? Ruminations upon Life’s Origins


The acronym LUCA stands for—Last Universal Common Ancestor. The term is used by astrobiologists and those interested in the evolutionary biology. The geological period of time in which LUCA existed was a point of demarcation from primitive life forms to more-advanced earth-living entities. The importance of LUCA lies in understanding how the three kingdoms of life came from a universal ancestor.

Description from Source: A phylogenetic tree of living things, based on RNA data and proposed by Carl Woese, showing the separation of bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes.

Original Source: NASA Astrobiology Institute Attribution: By MPF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

URL Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APhylogeneticTree.png

You might ask, why is LUCA so important? (brief interpretation)

Glancing at the phylogenetic tree one gains a sense that there may be a commonality or root to everything. ( It is not an oversimplification as much as it is a functional, mnemonic device.) So for sake of argument, the center point of the tree may be the point of LUCA—the point where red, black and purple branches form a ‘Y.’ It is at the point where RNA-life may have taken the first steps to ‘current’ DNA/RNA commonality. (It would be obvious—to evolutionary biologists, at least—that gaining an understanding of LUCA is tantamount to taking the next step backward to the origins of life.) The complex machinery in present DNA/RNA is like a ‘black box’ problem—one knows what goes in and what comes out–but the manner (or mechanism) is unclear. LUCA is a point of ‘transcendence,’ it is in essence a step in the evolutionary ladder. (Once the mechanism is discerned, the understanding may be harnessed for the betterment of the human condition.) Current evolutionary paradigms utilize a random mutations as a means by which ‘the paradigm advances.’ However, random mutations may literally take eons of time until the fit survive the next step of evolution.

It may be the case where an understanding of the transcendence of RNA life to DNA/RNA informs the human condition of how to better utilize life for itself and its progeny.

Source for thoughts and further introspection:

Frontiers of Astrobiology, edited by Impey, Lunine and Funes

Cambridge University Press, 2012

Brief notes on viruses


Virus: ‘A piece of bad news wrapped in a protein’

-Sir Peter Medawar


Source: Wikimedia

Diagram of the HIV virus. US National Institute of Health (redrawn by en:User:Carl Henderson)

U.S. Gov URLs:
http://web.archive.org/web/20050531012945/http://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/howhiv.htm

http://web.archive.org/web/20041119131214/http://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/graphics/howhiv.jpg

 

It is no secret that viruses are a bane of modern life—prior to the Bird Flu, Ebola, and HIV most individuals did not put much worry in catching a cold nor the influenza. However, the arrival of HIV in the late 1970s opened the eyes of many people—(and HIV’s source seemingly came from ‘monkey meat.’) While all along, the question as to whether viruses were a form of life was hotly debated and still remains partly solved (with the mainstream regarding viruses as non-life). Truth be told, the definition of life is a thorny issue to the majority of biologists.

The lack of understanding of viruses plagues the field of astrobiology as well. Googling the terms—viral life and astrobiology will nearly turn up an empty cache. One other remarkable fact is the number of viruses are said to outnumber bacteria by one order of magnitude. (Estimates put the number of viruses at 1031and the number of bacteria at 1030. That is the number 10 with 31 zeros behind it.) Any place there is humanity, you may well find a virus feeding as a parasite. In fact, there are viruses that feed on other viruses.

The discipline of astrobiology is studying viruses, and it may help discern the puzzle of fossilized life on the side (see note at end of post). However more to point, I will speak of ‘virus fundamentals.’ Viruses trick their host into ‘believing’ that their chemistry is a part of host’s biochemistry. The virus will attach itself to the ‘wall of its host’ and insert its DNA (or RNA) to make more copies of itself. It is correctly pointed out that viruses play a prominent role in life’s present and past evolution. (Viruses have been a part of the Earth’s biology since near the beginning of life.) And, it is pointed out that by finding ET-viruses it will help us to understand how life may have arisen elsewhere. That argument is put forth because viruses are now found in archaea, the bacterial communities that survive under extreme conditions. It has also has been reported that archaeal viruses may survive for extended periods by coating their exteriors with a glassy silica (related to sand).

The likelihood of finding ET-viruses is one which intrigues the astrobiology community. However, scenarios posed show a murky picture at best. If viral entities are found everywhere, it may be nearly impossible to discern ‘infected-life’ from ‘non-infected-life.’ Further clouding the scenario is the mainstream view that viruses are not alive but collections of chemical bags that bear little similarity to conventional life.

 

REFERENCES for READING and STUDY:

Matti Jalasvuori, Anni-Maria Örmälä and Jaana K.H. Bamford (2009). On the astrobiological relevance of viruses in extraterrestrial ecosystems. International Journal of Astrobiology, 8, pp 95-100. doi:10.1017/S1473550409004479.

Griffin D.W. (2013). The quest for extraterrestrial life: what about the viruses? Astrobiology. 2013 Aug;13(8):774-83. doi: 10.1089/ast.2012.0959.

REFERENCE related to fossils and biosignatures:

http://www.astrobio.net/exclusive/5812/glassy-coating-keeps-viruses-happy-in-harsh-environments# &

Laidler, J., Shugart, J., Cady, S., Bahjat, K., Stedman, K. “Reversible Inactivation and Desiccation Tolerance of Silicified Viruses.” J. Virol. 10.1128/JVL.02825-13. http://jvi.asm.org/content/early/2013/10/03/JVI.02825-13.full.pdf+html?sid=affa42aa-f145-4284-b6db-e12bdd34b1ed

 

 

 

 

Mad Art Lab | Sagan Day 2013 – We All Live on a Tiny Blue Dot


Mad Art Lab | Sagan Day 2013 – We All Live on a Tiny Blue Dot.

The link above was sent to me from COSMOQuest.org  —follow it. It is beautiful!

 

Correction added to blog–the following link might work better if you had problems with the first link?

http://cosmoquest.org/blog/2013/11/crowdsourced-blue-dot/

 

‘Space age innovation’


Space Shuttle Atlantis's three Block II RS-25D main engines at liftoff during the launch of STS-110. This image was extracted from engineering motion picture footage taken by a tracking camera. Source URL:  http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=2388

Space Shuttle Atlantis’s three Block II RS-25D main engines at liftoff during the launch of STS-110. This image was extracted from engineering motion picture footage taken by a tracking camera.
Source URL:
http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=2388

 

 

 

The retired-Space Shuttle program (like its predecessor Apollo) ushered much innovation to the public. And, if one were to ‘google’ the terms, nasa spinoff database –one may get lucky enough to see a lot of which many take for granted. The database is chock full with the ‘fruits of our labor;’ we truly hit the proverbial jackpot by going into space. For instance, I draw attention to the utilization of ‘photochemistry;’ to those of us who are not familiar with the terminology I give a quick definition:

Photochemistry is utilizing light (e.g. the Sun) to generate a desired (or needed) outcome. Sounds simple enough. . . .

When we do trek beyond our solar system, it may be necessary to grow foodstuffs. Sunlight has guided our days and helped to fill our nights with dreams. So, in the quest to grow foodstuffs, we are learning to utilize artificial light sources aboard the shuttle and the ISS. The ‘spinoff’ of utilizing light stands to benefit us in many novel ways—

From the NASA technologies website:

Red light-emitting diodes are growing plants in space and healing humans on Earth. The LED technology used in NASA space shuttle plant growth experiments has contributed to the development of medical devices such as award-winning WARP 10, a hand-held, high-intensity, LED unit developed by Quantum Devices Inc. The WARP 10 is intended for the temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain, arthritis, stiffness, and muscle spasms, and also promotes muscle relaxation and increases local blood circulation. The WARP 10 is being used by the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Navy as a noninvasive “soldier self-care” device that aids front-line forces with first aid for minor injuries and pain, thereby improving endurance in combat. The next-generation WARP 75 has been used to relieve pain in bone marrow transplant patients, and will be used to combat the symptoms of bone atrophy, multiple sclerosis, diabetic complications, Parkinson’s disease, and in a variety of ocular applications. (Spinoff 2005, 2008)

A major innovation (IMO), however, is the ‘direct’ utilization of light in cancer chemotherapy. A few years back, scientists recognized that certain drugs are active only when shined upon by light—so in other words, if one were to give a cancer patient a drug—it would act against the cancer cells when ‘shined upon.’ Thus, the targeting of cancer cells (in certain cases) became more efficient. (see the cited Nature article at the end of the post)

Most of us utilize space age technology and conjure our own versions of the technology, as well. For instance when one looks at instances of invention, one notices a cluttered path (at times). It is at those times we gain a sense of personal innovation and possibly inspiration. What could be more inspiring than to gain a mastery over the natural world? Science and engineering journals display articles of genius, innovation and refined curiosity.

Often it is not that one has a good idea—we may stumble while implementing the idea. So, given a fertile environment, I contend that we become innovators and tinkerers within our realm. I further contend we can become innovators in wider circle of influence (beyond ourselves) if we desire to do so. The path, then, cannot be so liberally littered by our personal insights as much as getting to the gist of all concerned. Moreover, we need a clarity of purpose.

Ideas become reality in instances where one stands upon the shoulders of giants.

–REFERENCES and READINGS

Specific cancer citation– : Cancer cell-selective in vivo near infrared photoimmunotherapy targeting specific membrane molecules Nature Medicine 17, 1685–1691 (2011) doi:10.1038/nm.2554 (the lead author(s) for the work–Hisataka Kobayashi)

READINGS LIST (in no particular order)

Costa, Liliana, Maria Amparo F Faustino, Maria Graça P M S Neves, Angela Cunha, and Adelaide Almeida. “Photodynamic Inactivation of Mammalian Viruses and Bacteriophages.” Viruses 4, no. 7 (July 2012): 1034–74. doi:10.3390/v4071034.

Goodrich, R P, N R Yerram, B H Tay-Goodrich, P Forster, M S Platz, C Kasturi, S C Park, N J Aebischer, S Rai, and L Kulaga. “Selective Inactivation of Viruses in the Presence of Human Platelets: UV Sensitization with Psoralen Derivatives.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 91, no. 12 (June 07, 1994): 5552–6. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=44034&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract.

Kiesslich, Tobias, Anita Gollmer, Tim Maisch, Mark Berneburg, and Kristjan Plaetzer. “A Comprehensive Tutorial on in Vitro Characterization of New Photosensitizers for Photodynamic Antitumor Therapy and Photodynamic Inactivation of Microorganisms.” BioMed Research International 2013 (January 2013): 840417. doi:10.1155/2013/840417.

O’Brien, J M, D K Gaffney, T P Wang, and F Sieber. “Merocyanine 540-Sensitized Photoinactivation of Enveloped Viruses in Blood Products: Site and Mechanism of Phototoxicity.” Blood 80, no. 1 (July 01, 1992): 277–85. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1319237.

Novo, E, and J Esparza. “Tetracycline-Mediated Photodynamic Inactivation of Animal Viruses.” The Journal of General Virology 45, no. 2 (November 1979): 323–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/120411.

Simonet, Julien, and Christophe Gantzer. “Inactivation of Poliovirus 1 and F-Specific RNA Phages and Degradation of Their Genomes by UV Irradiation at 254 Nanometers.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology 72, no. 12 (December 2006): 7671–7. doi:10.1128/AEM.01106-06.

Vigant, Frederic, Jihye Lee, Axel Hollmann, Lukas B Tanner, Zeynep Akyol Ataman, Tatyana Yun, Guanghou Shui, et al. “A Mechanistic Paradigm for Broad-Spectrum Antivirals That Target Virus-Cell Fusion.” PLoS Pathogens 9, no. 4 (April 2013): e1003297. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1003297.

Martian Moons—short note


About two years ago, the Russian republic launched an ambitious probe that never achieved its stated goal—landing on the Martian moon, Phobos. The general public may not readily recall mission, but if it had succeeded it would have brought to Earth a treasure trove of data and materials. As I recall the ballyhooed launch, it was an unfortunate loss and posed a potential environmental hazard (as portrayed by some in the media). The probe eventually fell back to Earth—here is the NYTimes article: Russia’s Failed Mars Probe Crashes Into Pacific .

According to the NASA website: (Phobos-Grund)

“The plan for the mission if it had made it to Mars is as follows: It will orbit Mars for a few months and touch down on Phobos in February 2013. Sample assessment and collection will take place over the next 2 to 7 days. It will collect 15 to 20 separate samples. After the samples have been collected, the springs will propel the return stage away from the lander and the rockets provide the 35 km/hr velocity needed to escape Phobos’ gravity. After the necessary maneuvers, the return capsule should arrive at Earth in August of 2014. The lander experiments will continue to operate on the surface for a year.”

Image of the Phobos-Grund spacecraft

[USA.gov] –URL source http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=2011-065A

Martian moons

The moons of Mars bear the potential imprint of past ejecta; SNC meteorites (e.g. Alan Hills meteorite) are found on the Moon and the Earth–and possibly on Phobos (or Deimos) as well.

Although there are many uncertainties, it has been suggested that the ejecta (Martian meteors) may contain evidence of past life (and the potential for panspermia). The topic of panspermia is controversial in many “quarters” of mainstream science–it has not been completely disproved.