Left-Handed Life

A few months ago, the New York Times published an Op-Ed that struck me in my mystery-loving heart. Instead of interpreting it, I’ll link to it here; it’s well worth the read. In summary:

The best way to tell if life could have evolved on other planets, the author postulates, is to see if it independently evolved twice on Earth. In other words, he entertains the possibility that there is a “shadow life” here on Earth that we’ve never been able to detect because we’ve never looked for it — our instruments were never calibrated to find it, or it lives only in unreachable places, like molten lava or beneath the Earth’s crust — with a different chemical make-up and natural history than known life. Instead of having its origins in the same thunderstruck pool of primordial soup, “Life 2.0” might have arisen via a completely different path. It might have left-handed amino acids, instead of our regular right-handed ones, or have cells that use arsenic in place of phosphorus. There could be an invisible, simultaneous biology living right on top our own.

You could see how this would appeal to me.

The example the author cites is the Archaea. You may not realize this, but while you were making a stink about Pluto being demoted from the planets, the whole five-kingdom system of life got stuffed into three domains. Remember Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, and Monera? Well, they found out that some of the microscopic creepazoids in the Monera kingdom had no close relation to regular bacteria. In fact, despite their outward similarities — an aversion to Lysol, for example — they were as far removed from true bacteria as we are. So now the three domains are Bacteria, Eukarya (that’s you and me), and Archaea.

Though they are distant relatives of ours, Archaea pretty closely fits the description of “Life 2.0.” Most of them are extremophiles, living only in salt lakes, acids, and volcanic hot springs. Some of them consume hydrogen instead of oxygen, converting it to methane. (They’re the germs responsible for farts.) And relatively few have ever been seen; they are mainly detected by the presence of their unique nucleic acids in solution. In this sense, they are quantum creatures, inferred by their environment the way physicists infer the nucleus of an atom by its electrons, or astronomers discover planets by the wobble of their stars. Finding life by inference is what scientists are hoping to do on Titan, a moon of Saturn, where the absence of large amounts of acetylene and hydrogen that ought to be present connote the distant possibility of methane-based life forms that are eating them.

This is cryptozoology at its ultimate. We used to be taught there was a shadow world of elves, witches, werewolves, gods. We believed there was a spirit ecosystem on our own, running concurrently; a dreamtime. I’d like to think that, beyond even Archaea, there is another dimension of life on our own planet that we haven’t heard because we haven’t listened. Maybe our spirits are right there in the microscope, waiting for us to focus the knob.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

4 responses to “Left-Handed Life

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