Tag Archives: Astrobiology

‘Space age innovation’

Space Shuttle Atlantis's three Block II RS-25D main engines at liftoff during the launch of STS-110. This image was extracted from engineering motion picture footage taken by a tracking camera. Source URL:  http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=2388

Space Shuttle Atlantis’s three Block II RS-25D main engines at liftoff during the launch of STS-110. This image was extracted from engineering motion picture footage taken by a tracking camera.
Source URL:




The retired-Space Shuttle program (like its predecessor Apollo) ushered much innovation to the public. And, if one were to ‘google’ the terms, nasa spinoff database –one may get lucky enough to see a lot of which many take for granted. The database is chock full with the ‘fruits of our labor;’ we truly hit the proverbial jackpot by going into space. For instance, I draw attention to the utilization of ‘photochemistry;’ to those of us who are not familiar with the terminology I give a quick definition:

Photochemistry is utilizing light (e.g. the Sun) to generate a desired (or needed) outcome. Sounds simple enough. . . .

When we do trek beyond our solar system, it may be necessary to grow foodstuffs. Sunlight has guided our days and helped to fill our nights with dreams. So, in the quest to grow foodstuffs, we are learning to utilize artificial light sources aboard the shuttle and the ISS. The ‘spinoff’ of utilizing light stands to benefit us in many novel ways—

From the NASA technologies website:

Red light-emitting diodes are growing plants in space and healing humans on Earth. The LED technology used in NASA space shuttle plant growth experiments has contributed to the development of medical devices such as award-winning WARP 10, a hand-held, high-intensity, LED unit developed by Quantum Devices Inc. The WARP 10 is intended for the temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain, arthritis, stiffness, and muscle spasms, and also promotes muscle relaxation and increases local blood circulation. The WARP 10 is being used by the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Navy as a noninvasive “soldier self-care” device that aids front-line forces with first aid for minor injuries and pain, thereby improving endurance in combat. The next-generation WARP 75 has been used to relieve pain in bone marrow transplant patients, and will be used to combat the symptoms of bone atrophy, multiple sclerosis, diabetic complications, Parkinson’s disease, and in a variety of ocular applications. (Spinoff 2005, 2008)

A major innovation (IMO), however, is the ‘direct’ utilization of light in cancer chemotherapy. A few years back, scientists recognized that certain drugs are active only when shined upon by light—so in other words, if one were to give a cancer patient a drug—it would act against the cancer cells when ‘shined upon.’ Thus, the targeting of cancer cells (in certain cases) became more efficient. (see the cited Nature article at the end of the post)

Most of us utilize space age technology and conjure our own versions of the technology, as well. For instance when one looks at instances of invention, one notices a cluttered path (at times). It is at those times we gain a sense of personal innovation and possibly inspiration. What could be more inspiring than to gain a mastery over the natural world? Science and engineering journals display articles of genius, innovation and refined curiosity.

Often it is not that one has a good idea—we may stumble while implementing the idea. So, given a fertile environment, I contend that we become innovators and tinkerers within our realm. I further contend we can become innovators in wider circle of influence (beyond ourselves) if we desire to do so. The path, then, cannot be so liberally littered by our personal insights as much as getting to the gist of all concerned. Moreover, we need a clarity of purpose.

Ideas become reality in instances where one stands upon the shoulders of giants.


Specific cancer citation– : Cancer cell-selective in vivo near infrared photoimmunotherapy targeting specific membrane molecules Nature Medicine 17, 1685–1691 (2011) doi:10.1038/nm.2554 (the lead author(s) for the work–Hisataka Kobayashi)

READINGS LIST (in no particular order)

Costa, Liliana, Maria Amparo F Faustino, Maria Graça P M S Neves, Angela Cunha, and Adelaide Almeida. “Photodynamic Inactivation of Mammalian Viruses and Bacteriophages.” Viruses 4, no. 7 (July 2012): 1034–74. doi:10.3390/v4071034.

Goodrich, R P, N R Yerram, B H Tay-Goodrich, P Forster, M S Platz, C Kasturi, S C Park, N J Aebischer, S Rai, and L Kulaga. “Selective Inactivation of Viruses in the Presence of Human Platelets: UV Sensitization with Psoralen Derivatives.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 91, no. 12 (June 07, 1994): 5552–6. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=44034&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract.

Kiesslich, Tobias, Anita Gollmer, Tim Maisch, Mark Berneburg, and Kristjan Plaetzer. “A Comprehensive Tutorial on in Vitro Characterization of New Photosensitizers for Photodynamic Antitumor Therapy and Photodynamic Inactivation of Microorganisms.” BioMed Research International 2013 (January 2013): 840417. doi:10.1155/2013/840417.

O’Brien, J M, D K Gaffney, T P Wang, and F Sieber. “Merocyanine 540-Sensitized Photoinactivation of Enveloped Viruses in Blood Products: Site and Mechanism of Phototoxicity.” Blood 80, no. 1 (July 01, 1992): 277–85. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1319237.

Novo, E, and J Esparza. “Tetracycline-Mediated Photodynamic Inactivation of Animal Viruses.” The Journal of General Virology 45, no. 2 (November 1979): 323–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/120411.

Simonet, Julien, and Christophe Gantzer. “Inactivation of Poliovirus 1 and F-Specific RNA Phages and Degradation of Their Genomes by UV Irradiation at 254 Nanometers.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology 72, no. 12 (December 2006): 7671–7. doi:10.1128/AEM.01106-06.

Vigant, Frederic, Jihye Lee, Axel Hollmann, Lukas B Tanner, Zeynep Akyol Ataman, Tatyana Yun, Guanghou Shui, et al. “A Mechanistic Paradigm for Broad-Spectrum Antivirals That Target Virus-Cell Fusion.” PLoS Pathogens 9, no. 4 (April 2013): e1003297. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1003297.


Generalities of Science Ethics, Life in the Goldilocks Zone, and the Allan Hills Meteorite


The years 1996-2000 were interesting to the astronomy community for many reasons. Many will remember the pronouncement of Martian fossilized life and the huge groundswell of commentary that the Allan Hills meteorite garnered. And, it was during those years that NASA announced the past presence of water on the Martian surface. Thus it would seem, the two (life and water) would go hand-in-hand. And, I was one of the converts who wanted to believe in the veracity of past life on the red planet. Since that time I have often wondered to myself—why did the ALH84001 finding not hold-up as well as it might? During the time period I recall reading many research reports on the on ALH84001. And as many can attest, all too often a lack of good, scientific judgment may be based upon a pre-conceived belief system that has no scientific foundation. Supporting the galling belief system is the self-perpetuating rationalization: a lifestyle which subconsciously massages egos. Perhaps, it is a sign of professional growth when one can understand that certain patterns of lifestyle can undermine good, scientific judgment. So, I ask, which way to turn?


Simple Corollaries for Life’s Presence and Evolution . . . Why?

  • Life requires a solvent—but it may not always be water
  • Life requires energy
  • Solvation and Energy generally act in a synergistic manner

Our, Earth-like, lives are heavily tilted towards water and the simpler elements on the periodic table. One primary reason is the energetics, and the meaning of the supposition might be summarized in the following manner—our habitable zone is synergistically shaped between ourselves and the environment in which we live. Try to imagine (for the moment) if our (?) Sun was an F class star and not G class. A primary difference is the temperature of the new Sun—one could surmise that the chemistry would be different, as well. And, quite possibly, silicon-based life may arise—using the carbon analogy of periodicity within the table of elements. (Although the presumption sounds deceptively simple, the chemistry is far from simplistic. See the following link for a podcast for a consideration on weird chemistry–Limits of Organic Life.)

It might, well, be speculated that water could serve the role that oxygen serves in our current milieu—and even metal back-bonding would replace the ubiquitous hydrogen-bond. Although the above-mentioned scenario seems fantastic—one may take into account that there may not be one good, realistic definition for non-carbon life. Thus, as current paradigms of carbon-based biochemistry seem to limit our vision of life—the need to expand efforts in basic research in inorganic models utilizing realistic energy cycles could open new venues for biochemical research.

Some references of note:

Lilia Montoya, Lourdes B. Celis, Elías Razo-Flores, Ángel G. Alpuche-Solís. 2012. Distribution of CO2 fixation and acetatemineralization pathways in microorganisms from extremophilic anaerobic biotopes. Extremophiles 16:6, 805-817.

Charles H. Lineweaver, Aditya Chopra. 2012. The Habitability of Our Earth and Other Earths: Astrophysical, Geochemical,Geophysical, and Biological Limits on Planet Habitability. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 40:1, 597-623.

C. S. Cockell. 2011. Life in the lithosphere, kinetics and the prospects for life elsewhere. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369:1936, 516-537.

Jorge Rodríguez, Juan M. Lema, Robbert Kleerebezem. 2008. Energy-based models for environmental biotechnology. Trends in Biotechnology 26:7, 366-374.

Niles Lehman. 2008. A Recombination-Based Model for the Origin and Early Evolution of Genetic Information. Chemistry & Biodiversity 5:9, 1707.

Murchison Meteorite



John Jaksich

As the world was celebrating the Apollo moon landing in 1969, humanity was greeted by a visitor—and a very welcome one, at that. On the morning of September 28, 1969, Australians witnessed a meteorite fall in Murchison, Australia—this piece of space rock has become one of more celebrated visitors from space (second only to the ALH84001, the Alan Hills Meteorite).

By Art Bromage  via Wikipedia

By Art Bromage via Wikipedia

 Murchison Meteorite

The Murchison meteorite is celebrated for many reasons, mainly of course; the detailed analysis of its constituents has yielded a treasure trove of data and some speculation, also. Firstly, speculation is, at times, part of the human condition—so I will put it aside.

Technically, the Murchison meteorite is known as a carbonaceous chondrite and it said to be about as old as the Solar System, itself. But, one major, distinguishing feature of this rock is the amount of organic compounds that have been identified within its matrix. According to two publications (listed below), it contains up to several thousand different organic compounds (many of the compounds may have some biological significance). Although it should be emphasized that no DNA, RNA—or fossilized remains of any type of organism were found within the Murchison meteorite.

The organic compounds, just the same, are very significant because many of these molecules yield important clues as to the nature of the protostellar disk—the type of chemistry which was prevalent before life took a foothold in our Solar System.

There have been skeptics—many of whom voiced legitimate concerns: contamination of the “rock” with terrestrial organics, ablation of meteor—resulting in significant alteration of the meteor, and “bad” handling processes by scientists and technicians. All the publications (three are listed below) which I have studied seemingly address the issues.

What does all of this mean? Molecular constituents that bear a resemblance to life’s constituents were “here” –in the protostellar disk, prior to us, prior to the dinosaurs, prior to the formation of our planet. That is a significant finding from a scientific point of view—almost (but not nearly close enough) as if we had found microbes on Mars, Europa, Enceladus, or Titan. Perhaps, it anything, this can serve as a rallying point for those of us who believe in science and its pursuits.

Publication reference list:

Schmitt-Koplin and others, 2010, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Pizzarello and Shock, 2010, Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology.

(Cold Spring Harbor Perspect. 2010;2:a002105)

Callahan and others, 2011, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Please note that you may have to pay for access—these references are copyrighted.

Astrobiology and Discovery



John Jaksich

Oldupai Monolith-AfricaCredit: Wikipedia

Olduvai Monolith-Africa
Credit: Wikipedia

By finding life outside Earth, the discoverers may need to assure the majority on Earth that they meant no harm. If wise, the celebrations will follow reflection, otherwise prior assumptions may lead us away like gazelle. This type of response is part of our genetics; a reptilian, knee-jerk emotion requiring attention. The questions of attention bemoan passive acquiescence, higher motives constitute the journey in front of us. When to leave the solar system dictates how humanity does so. Evolution’s clock, although imperceptible, may not wait for us to act, and imagining a voyage beyond the solar system fraught with danger does not rectify the innate tendency for irrational behavior. By understanding our innate tendency for compassionate intelligence we forge the initial step towards the recovery of our better selves. A path which allows safe voyage into the Universe, allows a rational, compassionate humanity to take the reins of the voyage—and its further evolution.

Moon Footprint: Edwin "Buzz" AldrinCredit: NASA

Moon Footprint: Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin
Credit: NASA

As it may currently stand, a lot of us won’t really know how to respond if a “new biology” is discovered outside Earth. While rovers, probes, astrobiologists, and astronomers hunker down in their work; they are a harbinger of humanity. Like those whose curiosity has not been compromised by the jaded hand of magic, could our harbingers help humanity respond as if it were a “new Lucy of the Olduvai gorge.” Just maybe, at that precise juncture, we will understand we are not looking at our own “fossils,” but a justification to take one more step. It is a ladder—as if we were learning to walk for the first time.

Credit: John Reader/Photo Researchers, Inc.MSN-Encarta WebCite

Credit: John Reader/Photo Researchers, Inc.
MSN-Encarta WebCite

Considerations on Astrobiology



John Jaksich

amino acid mirror images

Source:  Wikipedia

Figure 1

Mirror Images of an Amino Acid

An illustration of chirality (handedness)


Chirality is a term familiar to the scientific community, but not as familiar to the lay-public.  The word, chiral, is from the ancient Greek language for hand; and it bears significance because of life’s unique fingerprint.  Our proteins are (for the most part) made of left-handed amino acids.  What does this mean?  In the hunt for extra-terrestrial microbes, finding microbes beyond Earth that do not possess any resemblance to our own would be revolutionary.  It would be one small answer to an age-old question:  is human life the only chemistry of life–or if we are not alone why have we not seen anyone else?  Perhaps our bio-chemistry is so unique, we did not know where to look?

In Figure 1, we can discern a certain asymmetry between the molecules; they are mirror images of one another.  Pasteur made early contributions to the science when recognizing that a molecule may possess a mirror image of itself.  Furthermore, he recognized that–on occasion– mirror images may possess different properties.  In his experimentation, he separated mirror images of tartaric acid crystals.  By today’s standards, his methodology may be considered crude, but it was a complete stroke of genius for his time.  Painstakingly, Pasteur separated the right-handed crystals from the left–with a magnifying glass and tweezers.

crystal illustration

Source:  Wikipedia

Figure 2

Tartaric Acid Crystals

It is often said that individual mirror image molecules differ in bio-physical properties, the difference serves as the basis for the debate on why our type of life favors left-handed amino acids.  Biologists have argued that life would not have evolved without the current preferences seen in bio-molecular systems.  Others have argued for a physical basis for a left-handed preference among bio-molecular systems.  In any light, the scientific basis for chirality falls into two hotly contested areas: (1) the physical universe confers a preference for left-handed molecules, (2) left-handed molecules were favored on the Earth through an unknown process.

Experiments have been performed to simulate conditions that molecules experience in the Solar System; under those conditions, 50 percent mixtures of amino acids became an excess of left-handed amino acids. In the year 2014, the European Space Agency (ESA) will land its probe (from the Rosetta mission) on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko; it will sample the molecular constituency of the comet.  Hopefully this will give a better answer to the question of handedness in the solar system.  In fact the ESA probe will have visited a few solar system objects by the 2014 rendezvous date (see Figure 3 for probe trajectory).

Rosetta Probe

Source: Wikipedia

Figure 3


Trajectory of ESA probe:  Rosetta


For information regarding Rosetta: