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Mars Earth Science

Craig Venter Wants To Rebuild Martian Life In Earth Lab 142

Hugh Pickens writes "Karen Kaplan reports in the LA Times that Craig Venter is making plans to send a DNA sequencer to Mars. Assuming there is DNA to be found on the Red Planet – a big assumption, to be sure – the sequencer will decode its DNA, beam it back to Earth, put those genetic instructions into a cell and then boot up a Martian life form in a biosecure lab. Venter's 'biological teleporter' (as he dubbed it) would dig under the surface for samples to sequence. If they find anything, 'it would take only 4.3 minutes to get the Martians back to Earth,' says Venter, founder of Celera Genomics and the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). 'Now we can rebuild the Martians in a P4 spacesuit lab.' It may sound far-fetched, but the notion of equipping a future Mars rover to sequence the DNA isn't so crazy, and Venter isn't the only one looking for Martian DNA. MIT research scientist Christopher Carr is part of a group that's 'building a a miniature RNA/DNA sequencer to search for life beyond Earth,' according to the MIT website 'The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes.' SETG will test the hypothesis that life on Mars, if it exists, shares a common ancestor with life on Earth. Carr told Tech Review that one of the biggest challenges is shrinking Ion Torrent's 30-kilogram machine down to a mere 3 kg – light enough to fit on a Mars rover."
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Craig Venter Wants To Rebuild Martian Life In Earth Lab

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  • by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Saturday October 20, 2012 @12:15PM (#41714893) Homepage Journal

    It's not as flexible as you might think. We have reason to believe that ribose and the nucleotides are inherently more common in the universe, and the chemical behaviour of DNA and RNA both are extremely convenient and flexible by comparison with the alternatives we've synthesized. These are artefacts of quantum physics, universal constants, and how stars die. If the universe is an experiment designed to see what conditions cause life to arise, current astrophysics would posit that we are about as standard as it gets.

    The same goes for enclosing the self-replicating material in a membrane made out of lipids: some propose that the presence of lipids was required for life to start in the first place. Without some kind of solvent-filled (i.e. water-filled or ammonia-filled) cell, the only way to protect sensitive inner workings from the outside is by having a thick layer of solid material with no flexibility, which is extremely bad for evolution.

    Moreover, a lot of the theories about life on Mars depend on it either (a) being cognate with life on Earth (perhaps even the cradle), or (b) having a comparable biosphere to Earth's billions of years ago. And that's without considering panspermia. Given that it's from roughly the same mix of nebula as Earth, we've already got a lot in common.

    That all being said, however, Venter is once again vastly overambitious. 'Booting up' synthetic chromosomes only works in sufficiently similar chassis, and for very simple organisms (true Martian life would be radically different in terms of cell configuration and structure); an environmental sample of Ion Torrent reads is most likely not sufficient to clearly resolve specific genomes; any life on Mars is not likely to be near the surface within a rover's reach; any life near the rover's reach is probably a Terran contaminant. If anything comes out of this, it will be a new upper bound on "how many people can roll their eyes at Craig Venter."

"Yeah, but you're taking the universe out of context."