Science fiction has imagined aliens as everything from vicious Xenomorphs to duck-faced Gungans (Jar-Jar, is that you?), but when it comes to actually detecting extraterrestrial life on some distant world, we need to get to down to the molecular level. We also might need to flip DNA on its proverbial head.
NASA-funded research now suggests there could be alternative forms of genetic material out there. In a study recently published in Science Magazine, scientists were able to synthesize a molecular system capable of storing and transmitting information. This could mean that the life we seek deep in the cosmos is not necessarily as we know it on Earth.
While this is not an artificially created life-form, it does give us a wildly different idea of what the ingredients for life could look like on planets Earth life could never survive on. The Gaian model of what life supposedly needs to thrive is narrow compared to a literal universe of possibilities. What if there is life that breathes something that would be toxic to us or doesn't need water to survive?
“Life detection is an increasingly important goal of NASA’s planetary science missions, and this new work will help us to develop effective instruments and experiments that will expand the scope of what we look for,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
What the research team behind this mind-blowing study was able to fabricate was a foreign DNA structure that could give us an idea of what alien DNA could look like. It incorporated the four nucleotides found in Earth DNA — adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine—and added four more that mirror these structures, giving it double the informational ingredients of our genetic code. This is hachimoji DNA.
From the Japanese “hachi” (eight) and “moji” (letter), hachimoji DNA can do anything Earth DNA can. Its structure allows it to transmit, store and evolve information in a living organism. It may not be a perfect reflection of potential alt-versions of DNA that exist on other planets, but it could help us recognize them.
“By carefully analyzing the roles of shape, size and structure in hachimoji DNA, this work expands our understanding of the types of molecules that might store information in extraterrestrial life on alien worlds,” said study lead Steven Benner, whose team at he Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida, collaborated with labs at the University of Texas and Indiana University Medical School along with DNA Software in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
NASA is still scouring Mars for signs of life and eyeing Europa and Enceladus as potential hotbeds for alien organisms. Hachimoji DNA could help us recognize the genetic code used by unfamiliar life-forms used in extreme environments like the subsurface oceans of those icy moons or the freezing desert of the Red Planet.
Are they really out there? Maybe we will finally find out under a microscope.