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Astrobiology: An Important New Concept

Ever since people have been looking at the sky, we have wondered whether there is life somewhere else in the universe. Today, groups like SETI have been using government funding to search for extraterrestrial life.

Many political groups and supporters of creationism and intelligent design believe taxpayer money would benefit elsewhere; I disagree. The most recent developments in the search for alien life are important for humanity, and we should continue funding astrobiologists.

First off, astrobiologists are not just searching for life on other planets. Take geomicrobiologist Felissa Wolfe-Simon, who works for NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, or NAI.  Her research takes us to Mono Lake, a 700000 year old alkaline lake in the state of California. What Felissa has discovered here may change all that scientists know about evolutionary biology. Felissa has discovered and cultured a new type of microbe, one that replaces phosphorus in its DNA with arsenic, which is found in large amounts in Mono Lake.

This is part of research done by astrobiologists that involves the study of extremophiles, creatures that thrive in extreme environments. Scientists are studying these everywhere from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to Yellowstone National Park. This brings us back to Felissa’s discovery. Scientists believe that organisms such as these are capable of living even in the thick permafrost of Mars’s surface.

Also, the microbes in Mono Lake use a different formula for creating DNA, and some scientists have theories that they are not from Earth. So how is a small organism adapted to extreme environments beneficial to you?  Enzymes from these life forms are creating new developments in biomedicine and certain industries. Proteins can help fight infectious diseases because they are so well adapted. Extremoenzymes are used in everything from artificial sweeteners to stonewashing blue jeans. Astrobiology is, in essence, understanding all the life in the universe.

There is another reason we should continue funding groups who search for alien life and the origins of life in our universe. SETI and NASA have made several technological advancements that may affect you in your everyday life. Have you ever used a telescope? Looked at a radar scan of the weather in the news? These and more are being developed by SETI scientists.

Astronomers use very powerful versions of radar and telescopes, but with projects like the Allen Telescope Array and interstellar message composition experiments, these technologies improve.  For example, the Arecibo message beamed out to star cluster M13 taught us about communication and radio telescopes. In 1974, a SETI station in Puerto Rico shot a broadcasted message nearly 21,000 light years away.  This event has helped researchers improve radio and telescope technology.

Whether science fact or science fiction, the search for life in the universe is a worthwhile pursuit.


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