Simulations Show Living Space Dust Might Exist

Living Spacedust ToonMy brother called me today to tip me off on some exciting news: An article the New Journal of Physics reports evidence that inorganic space plasma might form life like structures. Fantastic! Simulations created by a Mr. Tsytovich and his colleagues at the General Physics Institute, Russian Academy of Science, have provided evidence that under the right conditions, dust particles may allow plasma to self-organize and exhibit behavior normally associated with organisms, such as self-replication.

A plasma is one of the phases of matter. The basic phases are solid, liquid, gas — and plasma which is typically, according to Wikipedia, an ionized gas that often takes the form of neutral gas-like clouds or charged ion beams, but may also include dust and grains called dusty plasmas. From what I can gather reading Tsytovich’s paper (see links below), it’s this dust that allows plasmas to form crystals — which are the foundation of the observations noted in the simulations. (Now, be warned: I’m not your resident physicist. I’m your intelligence guy — for physics experts you need to go past Google and turn left on Technorati Avenue. Please correct me if my physics explanations are off somewhere.)

Tsytovich and his colleagues demonstrated, using a computer model of molecular dynamics, that particles in a plasma can undergo self-organization as electronic charges become separated and the plasma becomes polarized. This effect results in microscopic strands of solid particles that twist into corkscrew shapes, or helical structures. These helical strands are themselves electronically charged and are attracted to each other. [Science Daily]

The paper details the conditions required for the appearance of spherical crystals, and these helix shaped crystals. It’s the helices that are of interest, as they bare resamblance to our notions of DNA. Specifically, it appears they can transfer information from one helix to another. There’s no explicit mention of how likely it is that this could happen in space as the paper mainly discusses how it can happen. But nonetheless, this is very exciting news.

To explain further, the particles could form microscopic helical structures capable of replicating themselves and interacting. Through these interactions and perpetuated replication — higher levels of complexity and organization can emerge. As Science Daily puts it, they could “[...] undergo changes that are normally associated with biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, say the researchers. They can, for instance, divide, or bifurcate, to form two copies of the original structure. These new structures can also interact to induce changes in their neighbours and they can even evolve into yet more structures as less stable ones break down, leaving behind only the fittest structures in the plasma.”

Lem’s planet of Solaris springs to mind when I imagine what continued evolution of such life forms on a grander scale might entail. But I’m uncertain of how large and complex these structures can become; is there a known limit to their potential complexity? If somebody has an idea I’d appreciate it if you left an explanation in the comments.

If you’re not intrigued by now, I followed their example and saved a cookie ’til the end (from their paper):

Our analysis shows that if helical dust structures are formed in space, they can have bifurcations as memory marks and duplicate each other, and they would reveal a faster evolution rate by competing for ‘food’ (surrounding plasma fluxes). These structures can have all necessary features to form ‘inorganic life’. This should be taken into account for formulation of a new SETI-like program based not only on astrophysical observations but also on planned new laboratory experiments, including those on the ISS. In the case of the success of such a program one should be faced with the possibility of resolving the low rate of evolution of organic life by investigating the possibility that the inorganic life ‘invents’ the organic life.

Basically, there exist some uncertainties regarding the Theory of Evolution: We don’t know for certain how complex lifeforms such as ourselves could evolve in such a short period of time. What they’re hinting at in the quote above is that inorganic materials acted as a kind of bootstrapping-template for organic life (that’s you!).

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