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Space Biotech Science

Interstellar Dust Could Be "Alive" 332

reezle writes "An international team has discovered that, under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organized into helical structures. These structures can interact with one another in ways that are usually associated with organic compounds and with life. Not only do these helical strands interact in a counterintuitive way in which like can attract like, but they also undergo changes that are normally associated with biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, say the researchers. For example, they can divide to form two copies of the original structure. These new structures can also interact to induce changes in their neighbors. And they can even evolve into yet more structures as less stable ones break down, leaving behind only the fittest structures in the plasma. 'These complex, self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter,' said the lead researcher. 'They are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve.'" The research, published in the New Journal of Physics, was carried out using a computer model of molecular dynamics.
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Interstellar Dust Could Be "Alive"

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  • by haluness ( 219661 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @04:52PM (#20254041)
    They could have mentioned that somewhere at the beginning of the summary. I was reading the damn thing and my heart rate was increasing. And then I saw that it was all from an MD simulation :(
    • by robably ( 1044462 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:05PM (#20254215) Journal
      But... if a computer simulation can simulate life, is the simulation alive?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      What, you think they have some researchers in deep space experimenting with interstellar matter right now?
    • by MoxFulder ( 159829 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:51PM (#20254725) Homepage

      They are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve.
      ... But do they exist?

      After all, this is just a computer model of some possible arrangements of particles. Even if the model is perfectly correct, it doesn't mean these living dust particles are actually out there in the universe.

      For example, a computer model could tell you that a 12-foot tall flightless bird would thrive in New Zealand [wikipedia.org], and it would be right... except that they don't exist (having been hunted to extinction a few centuries ago).

      Computer-simulated life is very exciting and cool, and can help scientists understand the evolution of living things (such as with the Avida [wikipedia.org] system). But it can't PROVE that a particular kind of life actually exists in the natural world.
      • Seriously probability question here. Given the size of the universe what do you think is the likelihood that the conditions required for this form of life exist somewhere at sometime?

        Your premise is correct in that the possibility of something doesn't make it real but given the vastness of space I'd say the likelihood is pretty good that something like this at least both has occurred and is still occurring somewhere out there.

        • by Gospodin ( 547743 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @06:14PM (#20254955)

          So, taking your argument one step further and combining with the parent post, you think it's likely that 12-foot flightless birds exist somewhere else in the universe?

          • I wouldn't be inclined to think that biodiversity has an upper limit given what we know has existed in the past. Seems likely something like it exists somewhere. It was a question of probability though, not an argument. I think the odds versus the size means it's pretty likely but that doesn't mean it exists.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by JaWiB ( 963739 )
          An alternate brane exists where interstellar dust beings are pondering exactly the same thing about us.

          In any case, I for one welcome our new interstellar dust being overlords/
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Hal_Porter ( 817932 )
        I don't think that's really important. There's a deep problem with the origin of life, since the current DNA and protein based life is far to sophisticated to be the original. So there's a fair chance that it's not the first generation and it has simpler precursors.

        Graham Cairns Smith [wikipedia.org] talked about clay based life as essentially making organic molecules as tools which eventually took over. It's a poetic idea, particularly Richard Dawkins comment that our silicon based tools make eventually take on a life of
    • by rm999 ( 775449 )
      Therein lies the uselessness of the word "could," at least as used in the headline. Any sentence using it is pretty much useless without further evidence.

      I *could* go on my roof tomorrow and fly to New York, but I'll *probably* break my neck.
      • A "could" sentence claims that the negation, "could not" is false. That's important. Also, the discovery of one mechanism by which interstellar dust could be "alive" is important because it allows us to begin to estimate the probability that such a mechanism is actually real.
        • by rm999 ( 775449 )
          Nothing can be known for certain. Therefore, anything "could" happen. That was exactly the point of my post - no matter how improbable an event is, we can claim it "could" happen.

          For that reason, it is usually incorrect to say something "could not" happen. We could claim that space dust could not be alive, but we better have a way of proving that every speckle of dust in the universe has never been alive, and that it never will be.
  • by kannibal_klown ( 531544 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @04:54PM (#20254057)
    Great, I may live to hear some alien life form call us "ugly bags of mostly water." Just don't let them near the laser drill.
    • I'm leaning towards "Sentient meat" [terrybisson.com] myself.
  • Black Cloud (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dhuff ( 42785 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @04:54PM (#20254063)
    Ooooo...shades of Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud [wikipedia.org]!
  • ..that no one has yet welcomed our new dusty interstellar overlords!
    Well if no one else does, I, for one, will.

    My god man, do they want tea?
  • Under the "right conditions" interstellar pigs can also fly.
  • by andy314159pi ( 787550 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @04:58PM (#20254125) Journal
    Organic doesn't mean biological! Organic chemistry, which is the bread and butter of modern chemistry, really has very little to do with life. It's the science of synthesizing new molecules which use carbon as its framework (as well as oxygen, nitrogen and other elements.) So things that are alive are always organic, but things that are organic are not always alive!
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Just Some Guy ( 3352 )

      So things that are alive here on Earth, as far as we know, are always organic

      Fixed that.

    • Exactly. Organic means that no pesticides or herbicides were used in making it.

      And I thought operator-overloading in C++ made things confusing...
  • by CityZen ( 464761 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:01PM (#20254145) Homepage
    Because if you can't relate everything you learn to Star Trek, then does it really exist?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:01PM (#20254153)
    If the dust decides to invade Earth (the next John Carpenter flick, The Dust), duct tape your door and window seams and arm yourself with a Swiffer and bottle of Pledge.
    • He basically already made that movie, it was called Ghosts of Mars. The "Ghosts" appeared as a cloud of red dust when they escape a possessed human who had been killed.

      Under the theory that all movies are actually documentaries -- 1) we're all screwed because every time you kill someone the Dust has taken over, it just moves on to the next person, apparently getting us to commit self-genocide and 2) it will still be very stupid and boring when it happens.
  • panspermia (Score:4, Funny)

    by wambaugh ( 666794 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:01PM (#20254157) Homepage
    That's it. I just wanted to make a post with "panspermia [wikipedia.org]" as the subject. You've got to sieze such opportunities whenever they arise...
    • by pla ( 258480 )
      That's it. I just wanted to make a post with "panspermia" as the subject. You've got to sieze such opportunities whenever they arise...

      Fair enough, but consider your audience... Some may not realize that "panspermia" applies to interstellar seeding of similar life (in our case, encoded as aperiodic carbon-based crystals, "Just add water"). The dust in question, whether alive or not, couldn't have seeded us, because we have just about as little in common as chemically possible.

      "Won't someone think of t
  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:04PM (#20254205)
    Lots of them out there... We could be the strange and unusual forms of life in the universe...

    • Only humans could be so arrogant that we would consider ourselves the premier life form in the universe.
      There has to be something else that is alive out there somewhere, and I would be very sad to see that we are the most advanced species.

      TFA is just a simulation, but I would imagine that some kind of strange life exists between the stars. I guess it's time to start sending people to other galaxies to find alternate forms of life.
      They'll (the other forms of life) will need lawyers, lets send the lawyers out
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by bcguitar33 ( 1001772 )
        Only humans could so self-deprecating as to assume that we're the only species who could be so arrogant as to consider ourselves the premier life form in the universe.
        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          Only humans could be so arrogant as to assume that only humans could be so self-deprecating as to assume that we're the only species that could be so arrogant as to...where was I?
      • by E++99 ( 880734 )

        Only humans could be so arrogant that we would consider ourselves the premier life form in the universe.

        How very arrogant to assume that only humans could be so arrogant.
    • So we would be the eczema/zits/rash of the universe?

      Poor earth must get made fun of by all the surrounding planets, stars, satellites etc.

      Earth's moon had the start-ups of an infection, but it was only present a short time (the scars are still there though).
  • Doesn't this mean the odds are even higher that life could evolve in space than even on planets? Maybe not higher lifeforms but simple ones. Resources are sparce so the formation and life processes would be slow but looking at the shear volume of material and area involved the odds should be much higher that life itself and not just the elements of life would start in space. Just in our system there's a massive donut of space within the life zone with a great deal of material available. Even gas giants woul
  • by proverbialcow ( 177020 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:10PM (#20254281) Journal
    Does it qualify under the Dave Barry definition?

    Life is anything that dies when you stomp on it.
  • Definition drama? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by vigmeister ( 1112659 )
    'Organic' was once thought to be those substances that were obtained from or present in living matter IIRC?

    It was then changed after urea was synthesized from then non-organic sources. At this point, the definition of organic was expanded to include non-alive stuff.

    Now that the definition has strayed away from organic being 'alive', this is a discovery of non-organic aliveness?

    I sense some circularity, but can't lay my finger on it... even though my analysis is probably over-simplified and possibly wrong

    • Unless you're talking about the 1800s and before not really. Carbon is considered organic as well as chemicals like acetone since they are used in organic processes. Finding signs of animo acids was a bigger find in a sense because they aren't chemicals but are complex organic compounds. The point is these things aren't limited to planets and they are finding that complex organic structures can form in space. Even those red globulas found in Inda that fell from the sky were thought to have originated either
  • by Dr. Spork ( 142693 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:33PM (#20254527)
    Wow, that was some misleading writing, though some very interesting research. I wonder if there's a practical way to observe actual plasma on this level, to see whether the simulation mirrors actual plasma physics. Also I wonder if there is an upper limit on the size, complexity and longetivity of plasma structures. It's hard to imagine something that hot would be very stable, though I'm prepared to be surprised.

    I'm pretty skeptical though. If evolving structures are so common that we see them even in a low-powered simulation, and every single star has so much freaking plasma, where are our plasma overlords? Or maybe that's hell, and those structures are just ... the souls of the damned! Oooh!

  • by morari ( 1080535 )
    I mean really, what other explanation is there? Dust doesn't just act lively because science says so, their has to be some sort of intelligent and purposeful being behind it. I know a lot of people will say that it is merely a extension of the Daemon Sultan Azathoth, but they're all pagan leftists spreading propaganda to detract from the one true God's will!
  • The actual article (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mopomi ( 696055 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @05:50PM (#20254709)
    The New Journal of Physics, http://www.iop.org/EJ/njp [iop.org] is an open access journal.

    The article is here:
    http://www.iop.org/EJ/article/1367-2630/9/8/263/nj p7_8_263.html [iop.org]

    Something that bothers me about the article is this paragraph (which has no references, though he claims this to be a well-known problem):

    "Self-organization of any structure needs energy sources and sinks in order to decrease the entropy locally. Dissipation usually serves as a sink, while external sources (such as radiation of the Sun for organic life) provide the energy input. Furthermore, memory and reproduction are necessary for a self-organizing dissipative structure to form a `living material'. The well known problem in explaining the origin of life is that the complexity of living creatures is so high that the time necessary to form the simplest organic living structure is too large compared to the age of the Earth. Similarly, the age of the Universe is also not sufficient for organic life to be created in a distant environment (similar to that on the Earth) and then transferred to the Earth."

    Emphasis mine.

    Sounds a little like this guy's been buying into "Intelligent" design a little too much...

    Strangely, the rest of his article doesn't look terrible to me. I do not do plasma physics--slept through that class--but I do publish scientific articles for a living.
    • by searchr ( 564109 )
      "The well known problem in explaining the origin of life is that the complexity of living creatures is so high that the time necessary to form the simplest organic living structure is too large compared to the age of the Earth. Similarly, the age of the Universe is also not sufficient for organic life to be created in a distant environment (similar to that on the Earth) and then transferred to the Earth."

      That doesn't sound like it would necessarily contradict non-hand-of-god options, thanks to that follow

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        I don't know about this one, but the other story [slashdot.org] was definitely the product of a crank.

        The problem is that Fred Hoyle did some screwy calculations about the probability of life, and everybody likes to quote Hoyle. Especially creationists and the "life from space" crowd. If you can't figure out why Hoyle is wrong yourself (it's not that hard) you can check out Hoyle's Fallacy [wikipedia.org] on Wikipedia.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mopomi ( 696055 )
        I agree that the statements, if true do not necessarily imply divine construction.

        My point was that (and I should have stated it more clearly) we don't know how long complex, living structures take to evolve. Therefore, the argument that the complexity of living creatures is too high to have evolved on the earth from non-living structures is specious.

        Additionally, the argument that the age of the universe is insufficient for panspermia to act over large distances doesn't make any sense:

        Fact: Our Milkyway
    • by Sibko ( 1036168 )

      Sounds a little like this guy's been buying into "Intelligent" design a little too much...
      Or he's a proponent of the Panspermia theory. Which would make sense, considering how his research would apply to it.
  • So that's what that cover band was singing about:
    "All they are is inorganic-helically-structured dust in the solar wind..."
  • The Black Cloud [wikipedia.org] was a 1957 science fiction novel by Sir Fred Hoyle that postulated sentient interstellar gas clouds.
  • We finally have a clue as to what Intelligent Designer crafted the cosmic matter into the seeds that brought life to the Earth [slashdot.org].

    I bet these interstellar Creator "gods" are nothing like any diety we've ever considered.
  • Lawks. Even as a simulation result, this sounds very intriguing. Any testable predictions?
  • Homeostasis and reproduction are good criteria for defining life, which these things could qualify as if they exist outside the simulation.

    If they show these organized interstellar materials can process, store and transmit info, then they're not just "alive". They're "intelligent life".

    We should devise experiments to search for them to actually exist in anything close to their simulated form. But we should be careful not to disrupt or threaten them with any probes. What if they created us, and decide to shu
  • In Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937, ISBN 0819566934), a far-future multi-galactic civilization is in a fix. They've embarked on a project to create a mass-mind incorporating all sapient being, past* and present, in order to have the wisdom or knowledge or processing power to unveil the mysteries of the universe and learn the nature of the entity behind the creation of the universe.

    Eventually their aeon-spanning telepathic sweeps detect the slow thoughts of primordial sapient dust clouds. With their help t
  • Just imagine how we must look the the super-intelligent galactic gas clouds. . .

    http://baetzler.de/humor/meat_beings.html [baetzler.de]
  • by Ralph Spoilsport ( 673134 ) on Thursday August 16, 2007 @09:33PM (#20256389) Journal
    It can only be used for good...

    or EVIL!!!


  • Oh wait, they already have....

    The Andromeda Strain (1971) [imdb.com]

    Note to Hollywood: Please don't remake "The Andromeda Strain" unless you can do a damn good job! Past experience has proven that the chances of this happening (doing a good job) are pretty damn low.

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