Arxiu d'etiquetes: astrobiology

Biology and extraterrestrial life

Frequently we can read on the news newly discovered planets that could harbor extraterrestrial life. Often we have new information about Mars, other worlds with water and extremely resistant living beings, like tardigrades. But is life possible outside the Earth? What is life? What is needed to sustain life? Astrobiology tries to answer this questions. Do you want to find out more?

ASTROBIOLOGY AND EXOBIOLOGY

Astrobiology is a set of different scientific disciplines that studies the existence of life in the universe. To achieve this it combines knowledge of biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, ecology, geography, geology, planetary science and molecular biology. Within astrobiology, exobiology studies the possibilities of life outside our planet. It should not be confused with ufology, a pseudoscience. Astrobiology tries to answer such exciting questions as:
– What is life?
– How did life appear on Earth?
– How does life evolve, and what is its adaptability?
– What is the future of life on Earth and other places?
– Is there life in other worlds?

No, neither is this a Martian nor is it astrobiology. Source: Quo

WHAT IS LIFE?

Although it seems like a banal question, life is not easy to define. Apparently, we can recognize if something is alive or not if it can perform certain functions and has certain features. Living beings have vital functions:

  • Nutrition: they can obtain energy from the environment to grow, survive and reproduce.
  • Reproduction: they can create copies similar to themselves.
  • Interaction: they can perceive what is going on the environment and inside themselves.
  • Organization: living beings are formed by one or more cells
  • Variation: variability between individuals allows species to evolve.

Problems begin when with beings that don’t have all the characteristics. The most classic example would be viruses: they are unable to reproduce on their own and lack cellular structure. Another example would be erythrocytes (red blood cells) of mammals, cells without genetic material or mitochondria.

Microphotography of the Ebola virus under electronic microscope (Public photo of the CDC)

WHAT IS NEEDED FOR LIFE TO EXIST?

We only know one type of life: the terrestrial one. This is why astrobiologists need to take it as a reference to know what to look for elsewhere. Could there be other forms of life different than terrestrial? Maybe, but it would be almost impossible to recognize them. If you do not know what you are looking for, you may find it but do not realize it.

It is considered that in order for life to appear and develop, it is necessary:

  • A liquid where chemical reactions take place: on Earth, it is water.
  • An element with ease to form stable compounds: on Earth, it is carbon.
  • A source of energy: on Earth, it is the Sun.

We are looking for planets or satellites with these characteristics, although other possibilities such as liquid methane (in the case of Titan, a satellite of Saturn), ethane, sulfuric acid, ammonia or acetic acid as solvent are being considered. Life-based on other elements such as silicon, it is a recurring topic in science fiction stories.

Artistic representation of Titan’s methane lakes. Credit: Steven Hobbs

WHAT IS NEEDED TO SUSTAIN LIFE?

The celestial body has to fulfill a series of characteristics so that life can be sustained:

  • An abundance of chemical elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen to form organic compounds.
  • The planet/satellite has to be within the habitability area of its star (orbiting at a distance that allows a temperature suitable for life).
planet, star, habitable zone
Habitability area (green) according to the temperature of the star. Red: too hot, blue: too cold. Source: NASA / Kepler / D Mission. Berry
  • A source of energy enough to maintain the temperature and allow the formation of complex molecules.
  • An appropriate gravity to keep an atmosphere and not crush the living beings of the planet.
  • A magnetic field to divert the radiation incompatible with life.
The Earth’s magnetic field protects life from the solar wind. Source: ESA

In our Solar System, the candidates that possibly fulfill these characteristics are Mars, Europe and Ganymede (satellites of Jupiter), Enceladus and Titan (satellites of Saturn) and Triton (satellite of Neptune).

WHY CARBON?

Living beings are formed by cells, and if we reduce the scale, by molecules, and atoms (like all matter). Why is life-based on carbon?

In fact, in the constitution of organisms 26 elements are involved, but 95% of living matter consists of carbon (C), hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), phosphorus (P) and sulfur (S). We can imagine them as the “bricks of life”: by combining these building blocks, we can obtain complex organisms. These bricks can be joined to others by covalent bonds. Metaphorically, atoms can be imagined as spheres with hands which can be grasped by other hands. For example, the main energy source molecule for all living things is ATP (Adenosine triphosphate, C10H16N5O13P3).

enlaces químcos, moléculas, sulphur, phosphorus, hidrogen, oxigen, carbon, nitrogen, chemical bond
Schematic representation of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus atoms and their valences (possible bonds). Own production based on figure 6.3 of “Life in space” (see references)

The candidate element to sustain life would have to be an abundant element able to form a great amount of bonds with itself and with other elements. The 5 most abundant elements in the universe:

  • Helium: does not form compounds
  • Hydrogen and oxygen: they have 1 and 2 hands: they can only form very simple compounds
  • Nitrogen: can bind to 3 atoms, but no chains of several nitrogen atoms are known.
  • Carbon: it has 4 hands so it can be strongly bonded to other carbons with single, double, or triple bonds. This allows it to form long chains and three-dimensional structures and can still join to other atoms. This versatility allows constructing molecules chemically active and complex, just the complexity that makes life possible.
DNA chemical structure, double helix
DNA chemical structure where we can see the importance of carbon bonding to form rings and chains. Source

Could there be life in another place based on a different atom?

ALTERNATIVES TO CARBON

SILICON EXTRATERRESTRIALS

Since establishing 4 links is so useful, silicon is the first candidate for biologists and science fiction writers, even if it is not as abundant as carbon. Silicon (Si) can also form 4 bonds and is abundant on rocky planets like Earth, but …

  • The Si-Si bond is quite weak. In an aqueous medium, life based on silicon would not be sustained for a long time as many compounds dissolve in it, although it could be possible in another medium, such as liquid nitrogen (Bains, W.).
  • It is very reactive. Silane, for example (one silicon atom bonded to 4 hydrogens) spontaneously ignites at room temperature.
  • It is solid at most temperatures. Although it can easily form structures with oxygen (silica or silicon dioxide), the result is almost always a mineral (quartz): too simple and only reacts molten at 1000ºC.
  • It does not form chains or networks with itself, due to its greater size compared to carbon. Sometimes it forms long chains with oxygen (silicones), that perhaps could be joined to other groups to form complex molecules. The alien of the movie Alien has silicone tissues. The beings formed by silicones would be more resistant, which leads to speculate what kind of extreme conditions they could withstand.
Horta, a silicon-based form of life featured in the science fiction series Star Trek. Source

NITROGEN AND PHOSPHORUS EXTRATERRESTRIALS

Let’s look at some characteristics of nitrogen and phosphorus:

  • Nitrogen: can only form 3 bonds with other molecules and is poorly reactive.
  • Phosphorus: its bonds are weak and multiple bonds uncommon, although it can form long chains. But it is too reactive.

By combining the two, stable molecules could be obtained, but the beings based on nitrogen and phosphorus would have other problems: the nitrogen compounds, from which they would have to feed, are not abundant in planets and the biological cycle would not be energetically favorable.

BORON, SULFUR AND ARSENIC EXTRATERRESTRIALS

The most unlikely biochemistries could be based on these elements:

  • Boron: can form long chains and bind to other elements such as nitrogen, hydrogen or carbon
  • Sulfur: can form long chains, but because of its size is highly reactive and unstable.
  • Arsenic: is too large to form stable compounds, although its chemical properties are similar to those of phosphorus.

In 2010, the journal Science published a scientific research in which researchers claimed to have discovered a bacterium (GFAJ-1) capable of living only in arsenic, lethal to any living being. It broke the paradigm of biology by not using phosphorus (remember ATP and DNA structure) and opened up new study lines for astrobiology. In 2012, two independent investigations refuted the theory of researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon and his team. Phosphorus remains essential for organisms to live and develop on Earth.

GFAJ-1 bacterium. Source

At the moment, these hypothetical biochemistries are nothing more than speculations, so astrobiologists are still looking for carbon-based life, although we already know that science never ceases to amaze us. Although we could identify life based on other elements if we ever find extraterrestrial life (or vice versa) the revolution will be so great that it won’t matter if they are carbon-based beings.

REFERENCES

 

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

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Tardigrades: animals with superpowers

The smallest bears in the world have almost superhero abilities. Actually, they are not bears: water bears is the popular name of tardigrades. They are virtually indestructible invertebrates: they can survive decades without water or food, to extreme temperatures and they have even survived into outer space. Meet the animal that seems to come from another planet and learn to observe them in your home if you have a microscope.

WHAT IS A TARDIGRADE?

Oso de agua (Macrobiotus sapiens) en musgo. Foto coloreada tomada con microscopio electrónico de barrido (SEM): Foto de Nicole Ottawa & Oliver Meckes
Water bear (Macrobiotus sapiens) in moss. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Nicole Ottawa & Oliver Meckes

Tardigrades or water bears, are a group of invertebrates 0.05-1.5 mm long that preferably live in damp places. They are especially abundant in the film of moisture covering mosses and ferns, although there are oceanic and freshwater species, so we can consider they live anywhere in the world. Even a few meters away from you, in the gap between tile and tile. In one gram of moss they have find up to 22,000 individuals. They are found in Antarctica under layers of 5 meters of ice, in warm deserts, hot springs, in mountains 6,000 meters high and abyssal ocean depths: they are  extremophiles. It is estimated that over 1,000 species exist.

MORPHOLOGY

Its popular name refers to their appearance, and the scientific name to their slow movements. Their bodies are divided into five segments: cephalic, with its tube-shaped mouth (proboscis) with two internal stilettos and sometimes simple eyes (ommatidia) and sensory hairs, and the remaining 4 segment with a pair of legs per segment. Each leg has claws for anchoring to the ground.

Vista ventral de un tardígrado donde seobservan los cinco segmentos del cuerpo. Foto de Eye Of Science/Photo LIbrary
Bottom view of a Tardigrade where the five segments of the body are observed. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library
Tardigrade. Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a freshwater tardigrade or water bear (Echiniscus sp.). Tardigrades, are tiny invertebrates that live in coastal waters and freshwater habitats, as well as semi-aquatic terrestrial habitats like damp moss. They require water to obtain oxygen by gas exchange. In dry conditions, they can enter a cryptobiotic tun (or barrel) state of dessication to survive. Tardigrades feed on plant and animal cells and are found throughout the world, from the tropics to the cold polar waters.
Tardigrade (Echiniscus sp.) In which you can see the claws. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo de Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library

Look at this video of Craig Smith to see tardigrade’s movements in more detail:

FEEDING

With its mouth stilettos, tardigrades perforate plants and absorbe the products of photosynthesis, but they can also feed absorbing the cellular content of other microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae, rotifers, nematodes… Some are predators too and can eat whole microorganisms.

Their digestive system is basically the mouth and a pharynx with powerful muscles to make sucking motions that opens directly into the intestine and anus. Some species defecate only when they shed.

Detalle de la boca de un tardígrado. Foto de
Detail of the mouth of a tardigrade. Colored image of scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library

INTERNAL ANATOMY

They have no circulatory or respiratory system: gas exchange is made directly by the body surface. They are covered by a rigid cuticle which can be of different colors and is shed as they grow. With each moult, they lose oral stilettos, to be segregated again. They are eutelic animals: to grow they only increase the size of their cells, not their number, that remains constant throughout life

REPRODUCTION

Tardigrades generally have separate sexes (are dioecious) and reproduce by eggs (are oviparous), but there are also hermaphrodites and parthenogenetic species (females reproduce without being fertilized by any male). Fertilization is external and development is direct: they don’t have larval stages.

tardigrade egg, ou tardigrad
Tardigrade egg. Colored image of scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye of Science/Science Photo Library

TARDIGRADE’S RECORDS

The tardigrades are incredibly resilient animals that have survived the following conditions:

  • Dehydration: they can survive for 30 years under laboratory conditions without a single drop of water. Some sources claim that resist up to 120 years or have been found in ice 2000 years old and have been able to revive, although it is likely to be an exaggeration.
  • Extreme temperature: if you boil one tardigrade survives. If you put it to temperatures near the absolute zero (-273ºC), survives. Their survival rate ranges from -270ºC to 150ºC.
  • Extreme pressure: they are capable of supporting from vacuum to 6,000 atmospheres, ie 6 times the pressure in the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench (11,000 meters deep).
  • Extreme radiation: tardigrades can withstand bombardment of radiation at a dose 1000 times the lethal to a human.
  • Toxic substances: if they are immersed in ether or pure alcohol, survive.
  • Outer space: tardigrades are the only animals that have survived into space without any protection. In 2007 the ESA (European Space Agency) within the TARDIS project (Tardigrades In Space) left tardigrades (Richtersius coronifer and Milnesium tardigradum) for 12 days on the surface of the Foton-M3 spacecraft and they survived the space travel. In 2011 NASA did the same placing them in the outside of the space shuttle Endeavour and the results were corroborated. They survived vacuum, cosmic rays and ultraviolet radiation 1,000 times higher than that of the Earth’s surface. The project Biokis (2011) of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) studied the impact of these trips at the molecular level.

HOW DO THEY DO THAT?

The tardigrades are able to withstand such extreme conditions because they enter cryptobiosis status when conditions are unfavorable. It is an extreme state of anabiosis (decreased metabolism). According to the conditions they endure, the cryptobiosis is classified as:

  • Anhydrobiosis: in case of environmental dehydration, they enter a “barrel status” because adopt barrel shaping to reduce its surface and wrap in a layer of wax to prevent water loss through transpiration. To prevent cell death they synthesize trehalose, a sugar substitute for water, so body structure and cell membranes remain intact. They reduce the water content of their body to just 1% and then stop their metabolism almost completely (0.01% below normal).

    Tardígrado deshidratado. Foto de Photo Science Library
    Tardigrade dehydrated. Photo by Photo Science Library
  • Cryobiosis: in low temperatures, the water of living beings crystallizes, it breaks the structure of cells and the living being die. Tardigrades use proteins to suddenly freeze water cells as small crystals, so they can avoid breakage.
  • Osmobiosis: it occurs in case of increase of the salt concentration of the environment.
  • Anoxybiosis: in the absence of oxygen, they enter a state of inactivity in which leave their body fully stretched, so they need water to stay perky.

Referring to exposures to radiation, which would destroy the DNA, it has been observed that tardigrades are able to repair the damaged genetic material.

These techniques have already been imitated in fields such as medicine, preserving rat hearts to “revive” them later, and open other fields of living tissue preservation and transplantation. They also open new fields in space exploration for extraterrestrial life (Astrobiology) and even in the human exploration of space to withstand long interplanetary travel, ideas for now, closer to science fiction than reality.

ARE THEY ALIENS?

The sparse fossil record, the unclear evolutionary relatedness and great resistance, led to hypothesis speculating with the possibility that tardigrades have come from outer space. It is not a crazy idea, but highly unlikely. Panspermia is the hypothesis that life, or rather, complex organic molecules, did not originate on Earth, but travelled within meteorites in the early Solar System. Indeed, amino acids (essential molecules for life) have been found in meteorites composition, so panspermia is a hypothesis that can not be ruled out yet.

Foto de Eye Of Science/Photolife Library
Photo by Eye Of Science/Photolife Library

But it is not the case of tardigrades: their DNA is the same as the rest of terrestrial life forms and recent phylogenetic studies relate them to onychophorans (worm-like animals), aschelminthes and arthropods. What is fascinating is that is the animal with more foreign DNA: up to 16% of its genome belongs to fungi, bacteria or archaea, obtained by a process called horizontal gene transfer. The presence of foreign genes in other animal species is usually not more than 1%. Could be this fact what has enabled them to develop this great resistance?

DO YOU WANT TO SEARCH TARDIGRADES BY YOURSELF AND OBSERVE THEM IN ACTION?

Being so common and potentially livIng almost anywhere, if you have a simple microscope,  you can search and view living tardigrades by yourself:

    • Grab a piece of moss of a rock or wall, it is better if it is a little dry.
    • Let it dry in the sun and clean it of dirt and other large debris.
    • Put it upside down in a transparent container (such as a petri dish),  soak it with water and wait a few hours.
    • Remove moss and look for tardigrades in the water container (put it on a black background for easier viewing). If lucky, with a magnifying glass you’ll see them moving.
    • Take them with a pipette or dropper, place them on the slide and enjoy! You could see things like this:

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY