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Craig Venter Wants To Rebuild Martian Life In Earth Lab

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the stacking-up-the-if-thens dept.

Mars 142

Hugh Pickens writes "Karen Kaplan reports in the LA Times that Craig Venter is making plans to send a DNA sequencer to Mars. Assuming there is DNA to be found on the Red Planet – a big assumption, to be sure – the sequencer will decode its DNA, beam it back to Earth, put those genetic instructions into a cell and then boot up a Martian life form in a biosecure lab. Venter's 'biological teleporter' (as he dubbed it) would dig under the surface for samples to sequence. If they find anything, 'it would take only 4.3 minutes to get the Martians back to Earth,' says Venter, founder of Celera Genomics and the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). 'Now we can rebuild the Martians in a P4 spacesuit lab.' It may sound far-fetched, but the notion of equipping a future Mars rover to sequence the DNA isn't so crazy, and Venter isn't the only one looking for Martian DNA. MIT research scientist Christopher Carr is part of a group that's 'building a a miniature RNA/DNA sequencer to search for life beyond Earth,' according to the MIT website 'The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes.' SETG will test the hypothesis that life on Mars, if it exists, shares a common ancestor with life on Earth. Carr told Tech Review that one of the biggest challenges is shrinking Ion Torrent's 30-kilogram machine down to a mere 3 kg – light enough to fit on a Mars rover."

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Needs to read more SF (2)

petes_PoV (912422) | about 2 years ago | (#41714639)

Hasn't the guy read A forAndromeda?

We know what dangers this sort of thing can lead to

Re:Needs to read more SF (1)

Kurast (1662819) | about 2 years ago | (#41715089)

Let us lobby him to use Windows to do it. This way, nothing will happen at all.

Re:Needs to read more SF (1)

davester666 (731373) | about 2 years ago | (#41716019)

Yeah, Windows 8. There's no "Start" button!

DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714657)

It is completely ridiculous to think that life on Mars would use "DNA" and even "cells." Both are just coincidences of life on earth. There are an infinity of different ways to encode genetic information and assemble living organisms. Did these people also write the scene in Independence Day where Jeff Goldblum takes over the alien computer with his Mac?

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (3, Interesting)

History's Coming To (1059484) | about 2 years ago | (#41714683)

That's the big question - is it a coincidence? It's entirely possible that, just as the CNO cycle is a common method of fusion in stars, that DNA, RNA or close analogues (eg Si or As based) are common ways of producing self-replicating molecules. We've only got a single data point, any speculation on the molecular basis of ET life is just that, pure speculation, until we have a second point.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (4, Insightful)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about 2 years ago | (#41714961)

We're not that blind. We can study the chemical fitness of different atoms by looking at the amount of energy it takes them to undergo various chemical reactions versus other counterparts. Silicon, despite science fiction's love for it, is an extremely inflexible atom: it can't form bonds with any of the major non-metals we use (oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus), and it can't form bonds with a number of the coordinating metal ions we use, either. You may say "oh, well, it can just use other stuff and have a big ol' alternative party," but there aren't many alternatives. Carbon is useful not only because it forms many bonds, but because it can form them with these atoms in particular, which are biochemically equivalent to tools. No tools, no catalyst, no enzyme, no metabolism, no life.

If I were a god-fearing scientist, I would tell you that we live in an experiment designed to see how frequently RNA, DNA, and polypeptide-based life evolves. (And I'm starting to worry I may eventually become one, simply because of how perfectly our biochemistry falls out of the periodic table. If there is an alternative way of doing things, it's not something obvious like swapping out one chemical.)

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

steelyeyedmissileman (1657583) | about 2 years ago | (#41715165)

Silicon, despite science fiction's love for it, is an extremely inflexible atom: it can't form bonds with any of the major non-metals we use (oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus)...

Are you [wikipedia.org] sure [wikipedia.org] about [wikipedia.org] that [wikipedia.org] ?

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

Sique (173459) | about 2 years ago | (#41715361)

Those aren't molecules, but ionic crystals. Not what we are looking for if we want to create livings.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (3, Insightful)

StripedCow (776465) | about 2 years ago | (#41716253)

If I were a god-fearing scientist, I would tell you that we live in an experiment designed to see how frequently RNA, DNA, and polypeptide-based life evolves.

Nah, the experiment is about creating silicon life. The hydrogens, carbons, nitrogens, oxygens and phosphors are merely catalysts.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (2)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about 2 years ago | (#41717879)

O-ho. :) I see what you did there.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (4, Insightful)

Velex (120469) | about 2 years ago | (#41717445)

You'll also note that if things didn't work out so perfectly, you wouldn't be here to invent god.

How did god evolve? Where did god come from? Why does god exist? Watches don't self-assemble or evolve from grandfather clocks; a watch implies a watchmaker. A being with the power to precisely calculate an asymmetrical space-time manifold where physical laws can come into being that allow something like stars and galaxies to even work must be much more complex than a watch. Who is god's watchmaker?

But as we know it was probably four elephants on the back of a turtle, and then it's a sequence of turtles, each more elaborate than the last to be the watchmaker for the next turtle.

Religion is fun and all until somebody gets hurt. I don't know where things are going with the religious right, but just keep in mind that if religion tells you that the only way to avoid hell and go to heaven is to kill somebody like me, that person might just be carrying concealed.

Probably best to stick to the real world. Fewer people get killed and fewer families get torn apart when there aren't sky wizards involved.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about 2 years ago | (#41717925)

I don't think you and I are talking about the same kind of deity. The origin of the big bang is beyond our ability to know anyway (at least, it was the last time I checked); all the hypothesis says is "gee, these conditions sure are lucky; what if they're part of deliberate permutations"? There's no need to get into recursive "where did it come from?" problems just because one has proposed a watchmaker; if anything, the question stands anyway. It's just a silly conjecture; nothing more, and quite honestly does not even qualify as religion.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

Mashdar (876825) | about 2 years ago | (#41718573)

Not to mention that I'm pretty sure I have a proof for the existance of watchmakers. So GP's logic is begging the question....

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

kesuki (321456) | about 2 years ago | (#41719071)

the big bang theory is as bad as any religion. we cannot and never could detect see or monitor the compression of water. without water compression the big bang theory is impossible. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redshift [wikipedia.org] redshift however can be measured and explained. radio telescopes can do some pretty cool stuff too. the hubble found so many galaxies that the big bang is further tested...

my point? don't mix politics with religion or religion with science or science with politics. why? because religion is used to manipulate people, politics is a futile effort to give power, and science is easy for both of the former to misuse, such as the big bang theory, if you belive the science our bodies are a fusion of trillion of cells of varying sizes, which i am sure you're more current on that than i am...

also i have seen 'probiotics' claiming to conatain 65 billion viable organisms per dose(2 pills). if there are 60 billion of them in 2 pills there must be trillions of good bacteria in the body itself. i know from a microscope i used to have that i could see many small things moving around in various samples.. my point? science can prove some things, i know scientists are in the job of selling hypothesis not statements of unerring fact. but i can grasp a lot from science. telling normal people that there is no flying spaghetti monster for them to worship by eating it. is rather hard even for trained professionals. they want their hot button issue so they can move on with their daily lives.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41718887)

How did god evolve? Where did god come from? Why does god exist? Watches don't self-assemble or evolve from grandfather clocks; a watch implies a watchmaker. A being with the power to precisely calculate an asymmetrical space-time manifold where physical laws can come into being that allow something like stars and galaxies to even work must be much more complex than a watch. Who is god's watchmaker?

God is eternal. This is difficult for you to understand. You are in in His universe observing the effects of the laws He put there. Your scientific theories are approximations of those laws based on your observations and your bias. The scientific method is a good tool to improve those approximations but can't help you understand God unless He cooperates. To imagine that God, who created the universe and all the laws in it, is bound by your approximations of how His universe work is foolish.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41717531)

Your statement, 'Silicon, despite science fiction's love for it, is an extremely inflexible atom: it can't form bonds with any of the major non-metals we use (oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus), and it can't form bonds with a number of the coordinating metal ions we use, either,' is incorrect. Si-O bonds are not remotely exotic. For example, poly(dimethylsiloxane) (PDMS) is a common polymer with an alternating silicon-oxygen backbone. There are many examples of bonds between silicon and other heteroatoms too - Gelest's catalogue (see gelest.com) is full of them.

If you fear that you're at risk of becoming a God-fearing scientist, please don't do so on the basis of your knowledge of silicon chemistry.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41717651)

To prevent yourself becoming a god-fearing scientist I recommend you delve into M Theory, it'll starve away any demons or meatballs!

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (2)

the gnat (153162) | about 2 years ago | (#41714823)

There are an infinity of different ways to encode genetic information and assemble living organisms.

False - there are a finite number of stable elements, and a finite number of possible covalent chemistries. Moreover, while it is in theory possible for other types of biochemistry to exist, it is most probable that life on Mars would follow similar rules to life on Earth, i.e. CNOH-based chemistry. (Additionally, as another commenter pointed out, we have no evidence for other mechanisms.) What Venter hasn't made clear in any of the articles I've read is whether he expects that any Martian life would share a common ancestor with Earth life. If he isn't operating on this assumption, than two other assumptions fall apart: a) that the structure of Martian genetic material would be so similar as to permit DNA sequencing, and b) that the resulting sequence would be interpretable in the same way as Earth DNA, to the point of being able to reconstruct a cell. The latter point in particular is simply insane if you assume independent origins.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41716783)

What do you mean no evidence...isn't there life in mono lake that uses Arsenic instead of Phosphorus because of the harsh conditions? I think assuming all life fits to our concept of life is a silly, closed mindset to have. I mean, life on Earth evolved the way it did because of the abundance of water, mild weather, our atmospheric pressure, and our gravity. There are so many variations of these variables that life would have a completely different basis to satisfy those conditions.

Also, just because there aren't infinite combinations of molecules does not mean that there aren't a large number of them. And let's remember, there are infinite possible ways for "DNA" to be encoded or for the idea of a cell to be represented. It's just nuts to assume that all life will be like ours.

Now, if they find life on Mars that is similar to ours, it can mean that life may have originated outside this planet and arrived here via an asteroid or some other interstellar object. It could also mean that only our form of life is possible, but as I said earlier, that is crazy to assume.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

the gnat (153162) | about 2 years ago | (#41716971)

isn't there life in mono lake that uses Arsenic instead of Phosphorus because of the harsh conditions?

No, this has been pretty thoroughly debunked by now. There are fundamental chemical reasons why it was very unlikely to begin with, which have nothing to do with our supposedly naive assumptions about the nature of life, but are simply the unavoidable consequences of the basic properties of the elements.

life on Earth evolved the way it did because of the abundance of water, mild weather, our atmospheric pressure, and our gravity.

As far as we know, only the abundance of water is a prerequisite for terrestrial life. Organisms have been found thriving at anywhere from 0C to 100C and beyond, and at incredible depths in the oceans where the pressure would crush us. Microgravity may be unpleasant for complex animals, but bacteria are less picky.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (3, Informative)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about 2 years ago | (#41714893)

It's not as flexible as you might think. We have reason to believe that ribose and the nucleotides are inherently more common in the universe, and the chemical behaviour of DNA and RNA both are extremely convenient and flexible by comparison with the alternatives we've synthesized. These are artefacts of quantum physics, universal constants, and how stars die. If the universe is an experiment designed to see what conditions cause life to arise, current astrophysics would posit that we are about as standard as it gets.

The same goes for enclosing the self-replicating material in a membrane made out of lipids: some propose that the presence of lipids was required for life to start in the first place. Without some kind of solvent-filled (i.e. water-filled or ammonia-filled) cell, the only way to protect sensitive inner workings from the outside is by having a thick layer of solid material with no flexibility, which is extremely bad for evolution.

Moreover, a lot of the theories about life on Mars depend on it either (a) being cognate with life on Earth (perhaps even the cradle), or (b) having a comparable biosphere to Earth's billions of years ago. And that's without considering panspermia. Given that it's from roughly the same mix of nebula as Earth, we've already got a lot in common.

That all being said, however, Venter is once again vastly overambitious. 'Booting up' synthetic chromosomes only works in sufficiently similar chassis, and for very simple organisms (true Martian life would be radically different in terms of cell configuration and structure); an environmental sample of Ion Torrent reads is most likely not sufficient to clearly resolve specific genomes; any life on Mars is not likely to be near the surface within a rover's reach; any life near the rover's reach is probably a Terran contaminant. If anything comes out of this, it will be a new upper bound on "how many people can roll their eyes at Craig Venter."

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715239)

The same goes for enclosing the self-replicating material in a membrane made out of lipids:

Sacs.

Of gel.

Fess up. You're working with K'Breel, aren't you? :)

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

mikael (484) | about 2 years ago | (#41715671)

There are some life-forms which can only live in the high pressure environments of ocean sea-beds. Attempts to raise them to the surface (even with identical salinity, temperature, chemical mix) have just led to their death - they simply disintegrate. The high pressure that would crush a human, hold various chemical bonds together.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41716647)

First, getting your hands on the DNA of a deceased still gives you the DNA (to be more specific, getting a cell's DNA means the cell's death).

Second, organisms that live under high pressure mainly die of physical, not chemical, processes when exposed to our mean air pressure. The initial reason for death is mainly that van-der-Waals forces are nor strong enough to hold molecules together under lower pressure, thus the cells simply burst.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

crunchygranola (1954152) | about 2 years ago | (#41717347)

That all being said, however, Venter is once again vastly overambitious. 'Booting up' synthetic chromosomes only works in sufficiently similar chassis...

If you dig into this story just a little bit (look at the short piece from the Los Angeles Times linked in the summary, and follow its link to Technology Review's article [technologyreview.com] ), you will find what you should have suspected in the first place - this stuff about recreating Martian life on Earth is just the most sensationalistic footnote in a story that is really about detecting DNA on Mars.

The purpose of the sequencer is to find out if there is any DNA on Mars, the only way to do that in a convincing, scientifically useful way is to try to sequence it.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | about 2 years ago | (#41717903)

Unfortunately, of course, as someone else noted, DNA on Earth really doesn't fare well in the face of exposure. We only have extremely old pieces because of exceptionally calm environments (trapped in amber, frozen deep in permafrost) that either don't really exist on Mars or would require a lot more digging than your average probe can handle. Not that it wouldn't be totally awesome...

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (2)

MightyMartian (840721) | about 2 years ago | (#41714977)

I think some sort of cell would be common to most life. It's difficult to imagine how advanced life could evolve without some sort of semi-permeable membrane.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

AC-x (735297) | about 2 years ago | (#41715273)

The same organic molecules that Earth life uses have shown to form under a number of conditions [wikipedia.org] and membrane forming lipids [science20.com] are also common so while there's very little chance it would be identical it's likely that extraterrestrial life would still have many things in common biochemically, but yeah you'd need more than just an earth life-tuned DNA sequencer to be able to read and recreate it.

Unless the theory that Earth and Mars seeded each other with life via meteorite ejecta is true, in which case Earth life and theoretical Mars life may have the same common ancestor.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715295)

You seem to base your entire argument on baseless intellectual assumptions and speculations. It is more probable earth was "seeded" with life from other parts of the universe, than merely a "coincidence". Life, once it's kickstarted, *can* spread across star systems. I can't speak on the probabilities and time factors, but it sounds a lot more probable than life spontaneously happening. Although that too can happen, it may not be that many stable variants to go around.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

mikael (484) | about 2 years ago | (#41715651)

A "cell" simply consists of a number of "membranes" (outside world/cell, inside cell/nucleus), some scaffolding to keep everything in place, receptor units to send/receive messages from other cells (the biological equivalent of UNIX "sockets"). Then you have the "nucleus" which is like the kernel, and there are the mitochondria areas which convert nutrients into energy as well as pores to dump waste and take in nutrients. We already know that the cell nucleus will actually "cache" genes that are in use. The amino acids that form DNA are actually found throughout the universe. There are only so many different elements that are either completely inert (Neon), stable (Carbon bonds) and extremely reactive (Fluorine).

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

jeffb (2.718) (1189693) | about 2 years ago | (#41716257)

It is completely ridiculous to think that life on Mars would use "DNA" and even "cells." Both are just coincidences of life on earth. There are an infinity of different ways to encode genetic information and assemble living organisms.

Illustrate your point with at least two other examples.

Re:DNA is an Earth-specific coincidence (1)

j00r0m4nc3r (959816) | about 2 years ago | (#41717799)

It is completely ridiculous to think that life on Mars would use "DNA" and even "cells."

I would say it's completely ridiculous to close your mind to such possibilities. There was a time when people thought it was ridiculous to think the Earth revolved around the sun. You would have been one of those numbskulls, had you been born a while earlier... Stop presuming to know everything.

DNA Half-life (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714659)

Except the half-life of DNA is only 521 years. I don't know, but I would be highly skeptical of there having been life on the planet within that time period.

Re:DNA Half-life (1)

History's Coming To (1059484) | about 2 years ago | (#41714709)

It's conceivable that with a large enough sample size you could find common protein encoding sections which would allow you to, for example, discover whether photosynthesis was in operation and which chemicals were involved, giving a rough idea of the types of plant life, if not Jurassic Park style examples of individual species.

On Earth? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714663)

How about on a base on the Moon.

Safer and it'll incentivize lunar transport.

Re:On Earth? (1)

jamstar7 (694492) | about 2 years ago | (#41715689)

I agree. A xenogenetics lab on Earth is not a good idea, especially if they decide to work with 'hot' DNA. Better to put it on the Moon, or even better, in a free orbit between Earth and Mars so that if something does go wrong, the solar wind will blow the bugs out of the solar system.

Re:On Earth? (1)

deadhammer (576762) | about 2 years ago | (#41716371)

I agree. A xenogenetics lab on Earth is not a good idea, especially if they decide to work with 'hot' DNA. Better to put it on the Moon, or even better, in a free orbit between Earth and Mars so that if something does go wrong, the solar wind will blow the bugs out of the solar system.

Nonsense.

Xenogenetics labs working on tiny fragments of alien DNA (or equivalent) would be of no danger whatsoever. How do I know? Bacteria. Millions of species of hardy, survivalist badasses that have survived through more globe-spanning apocalypses than you've had hot dinners. So let's say there's an accident and some tiny sequenced fragments of alien genetics fall into a pond somewhere. Assuming A) the environment doesn't immediately kill them and B) they're complete enough to form autonomous life, they'll have to contend with the fact that they're competing for survival against creatures that are built to survive the shit that Earth throws at them. Not a chance in hell.

Re:On Earth? (1)

jamstar7 (694492) | about 2 years ago | (#41716985)

I agree. A xenogenetics lab on Earth is not a good idea, especially if they decide to work with 'hot' DNA. Better to put it on the Moon, or even better, in a free orbit between Earth and Mars so that if something does go wrong, the solar wind will blow the bugs out of the solar system.

Nonsense.

Xenogenetics labs working on tiny fragments of alien DNA (or equivalent) would be of no danger whatsoever. How do I know? Bacteria. Millions of species of hardy, survivalist badasses that have survived through more globe-spanning apocalypses than you've had hot dinners. So let's say there's an accident and some tiny sequenced fragments of alien genetics fall into a pond somewhere. Assuming A) the environment doesn't immediately kill them and B) they're complete enough to form autonomous life, they'll have to contend with the fact that they're competing for survival against creatures that are built to survive the shit that Earth throws at them. Not a chance in hell.

Sure, the odds are against it. Probably, the odds are better for you to hit the Lotto, the Powerball and keno in Vegas on the same day. But do you really want to roll those dice? I'm crazy. I'm not stupid. There's a considerable difference. And I don't believe in taking unnecessary risks.

Let's just kill this idea with science right now. (4, Insightful)

Dzimas (547818) | about 2 years ago | (#41714685)

Morten et al recently examined DNA in 158 bone fossils and determined the half-life of DNA to be 521 years in their sample. Even if Martian DNA functioned in the same manner, the idea that environmental conditions on Mars were suitable to sustain life as late as the year 1491 is ludicrous. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/10/05/rspb.2012.1745.abstract?sid=abb89d94-00f1-431b-8863-c62996e35478 [royalsocie...ishing.org]

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714727)

But that's under Earth conditions, with the limited atmosphere on Mars perhaps the time would be much longer. Just a guess, but I don't think there's anything in DNA that is actually radioactive in a traditional half-life sense, so I'm assuming that is due to environmental conditions.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (2)

SecurityGuy (217807) | about 2 years ago | (#41715609)

Less atmosphere would mean more radiation, so if anything, the DNA would degrade faster.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (1)

Gavagai80 (1275204) | about 2 years ago | (#41716487)

Depends where you mean. There's tons of simple life deep below the surface of the Earth, so why not below Mars where it'd be protected from raduation?

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41717587)

Don't forget that if you're mounting it on a rover, you're limited to using it on the surface. Maybe this is better left to the time of human exploration?

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (1)

Belial6 (794905) | about 2 years ago | (#41714771)

I don't believe it does. They only determined that the half-life of a particular animal in a particular location has been 521 years. The study specifically point out that it was for a specific location. It also specifically points out that environmental factors play a role in how long DNA lasts.

It looks like the study point to the idea that DNA degrades exponentially, but it does not pin that degradation to a specific rate.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (2)

slashping (2674483) | about 2 years ago | (#41714831)

Sure, but even if you assume a half life of 10,000 years, there's not going to be much left after a few billion years. And Mars looks like a nasty place for DNA to survive, so it's more likely that 521 years is overly optimistic.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (1)

poity (465672) | about 2 years ago | (#41714807)

This is going to be a layman's attempt at grasping "half-life" as applied to large molecule strands, but if we assume that no two strands decay in the same way, would it not be possible to increase the sample size so that what's missing from one could be found in another?

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715063)

You can but like optimistic estimate, 10000 year half life and 100 000 000 years time, you would have 10000 half lives which would leave you with (1/2)^10000 of the original material which is zero to I think even floating point precision (5x10^-3011 according to wolfram). So you'd need to start with 10^3000 molecules of DNA to find even one remaining now.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (1)

mikael (484) | about 2 years ago | (#41715709)

Perhaps there are oil fields in Mars. What used to be trees and dinosaur snacks on Earth is now large pools of hydrocarbons or Kerogen [wikipedia.org] .

The only way you could tell something was DNA, would be through the ratios of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and oxygen:

Kerogen from the Green River Formation oil shale deposit of western North America contains elements in the proportions carbon 215 : hydrogen 330 : oxygen 12 : nitrogen 5 : sulfur 1.[2]

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715127)

This is going to be a layman's attempt at grasping "half-life" as applied to large molecule strands, but if we assume that no two strands decay in the same way, would it not be possible to increase the sample size so that what's missing from one could be found in another?

They tried that once. This is how the platypus came to existence.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714837)

Yet we have recovered enough DNA from a single Denisovan finger bone to establish that they shared some genes with some modern humans and not with others, and we have recovered enough DNA from Neanderthal skeletons to establish that Neanderthal ancestry is almost universal among people who have non-African ancestry.

Your take-home lesson: DNA half-life depends on conditions

But still, finding DNA from extinct life on Mars remains very unlikely. However if we find organisms that are alive now, we could conceivably beam them back to Earth and study them here -- if their cellular chemistry works the same way Earth life's does. If not, you might not be able to sequence them properly. If they use a different kind of encoding mechanism (different options instead of DNA/RNA) you might not get the important information about how their biology works. In that case, they only option would be to send people there to study them or bring back samples to study.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715037)

Bioinformatics lets you fill in the gaps from one strand with other partially decayed strands. Given a large enough sample size the sequences can be reassembled from the pieces.

It is a given that being on Mars is quite likely to have destroyed the vast majority of the DNA just due to the decay times.

However, the hypothesis as to whether or not the Martian DNA shares a common ancestor with Earth DNA doesn't require much more than a tiny fraction of a sequence before it will become obvious that it is fundamentally different from Earth DNA or not. We don't need the complete DNA structure to make that determination. Enough residue to know that it is DNA at all is probably enough.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (1)

mbone (558574) | about 2 years ago | (#41715157)

Why? What happened in 1492? (Assuming Columbus didn't secretly go to Mars.)

You are assuming that there is no current life on Mars. If there ever was life on Mars, it is highly likely to be extant now. The deep biosphere on Earth shows this.

Now, will you be able to find it on the surface landing in some random spot ? That is another matter; I suspect that just having a 3 kg sequencer may not be enough. A rover with an oil derrick attached is going to weigh a bit more...

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41717257)

RTFA and WTFV here (sorry)

Venter's convinced there are dna lifeforms in the Martian subsurface, > 1 meter down. He wants to sequence living microbes.

Re:Let's just kill this idea with science right no (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41717743)

Except it's colder and there is no oxygen on mars, so the half life is going
to be a lot longer.

Start with the basics first... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714689)

They can't even get the dinosaurs figured out correctly... How in the heck do they expect to address life from another planet!? Let's start with the basics and build a T-Rex and 'then' build Martian life... Besides... What Could Go Wrong (WCGW)(tm).

Re:Start with the basics first... (1)

Convector (897502) | about 2 years ago | (#41716595)

Let's try it first with some extant Earth life, a gila monster or bacterium or something for which we know the answer. There's no point in sending this to Mars before we can make it work on Earth.

What could possibly go wrong? (2)

Hognoxious (631665) | about 2 years ago | (#41714691)

What could possibly go wrong?

P.S. UUULLLAAAAAA

Re:What could possibly go wrong? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714867)

The problem of course is the humans.

Jurassic Mars (1)

moniker127 (1290002) | about 2 years ago | (#41714707)

As long as we're making movie pitches, they may as well have titles.

Makes you wonder (1)

poity (465672) | about 2 years ago | (#41714755)

What if advanced extraterrestrials have already done this to us, and there's a "Jurrasic Earth" somewhere with cloned humans running around for them to study? *gasp* What if Earth is their "P4 spacesuit lab" equivalent, and we began as laboratory clones of an organism from another system?

Re:Makes you wonder (1)

moniker127 (1290002) | about 2 years ago | (#41714763)

Wait, did you just pitch Prometheus?

Re:Makes you wonder (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714775)

I think he pitched his own shit fuck.

Re:Makes you wonder (1)

poity (465672) | about 2 years ago | (#41715467)

are you saying my shit fuck is worse than Prometheus?

Re:Makes you wonder (1)

SteveFoerster (136027) | about 2 years ago | (#41717589)

Relax, since nothing is worse than Prometheus, your shit fuck is safe.

One small problem (1)

Nidi62 (1525137) | about 2 years ago | (#41714731)

I don't think any traces of amber have been found on Mars. And we all know you can't get preserved DNA unless you can find some amber.

right (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714737)

like the moon landings we need a proper stage so any mars landing can also be faked....
think of all that cash we could scam off tax payers......

The program is useless without the CPU (3, Interesting)

hmbcarol (937668) | about 2 years ago | (#41714761)

Having the exact stream of bytes of an ARM program will do you no good if you place it in an x86 CPU and expect it to run. Or even one variant of an ARM to another with different I/O, timers, etc. Simply transferring entire genomes between far distant organisms on Earth won't work. When the organisms are distant enough from each other there is variance in the code itself (stop codons, etc) and the machinery the specific code will be manipulating must be there to be controlled. Ribosomes vary, organelles certainly vary. In fact it's rather presumptive of us to assume the genetic mechanism must be DNA or RNA when there are probably all sorts of other mechanisms that would work suitably. Even presuming life had a common origin and there was some event that seeded Mars with Earth bacteria (or the other way around) a few billion years ago, doesn't mean there is the slightest chance it's in any way compatible with anything that could be found on Earth today. Very different environments will select for very implementations over those billions of years.

Re:The program is useless without the CPU (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41716115)

Great analogy, the simple construct of silicon and conducting layers for the movement and control of electrons, as the means by which to compute logic and mathematics functions... this equates to the environment in which life evolved how?

I do agree that the likelihood is incredibly small. If life did exist on Mars, then it seems unlikely that Martian DNA could be used to construct a living functional organism adapted to Terran conditions right out of the box, but that doesn't mean there isn't enough evidence regarding the makeup of the Martian atmosphere that it couldn't be reconstructed in a lab. And the same goes for other aspects of that environment, acidity, alkalinity, ambient radiation levels, wetness, mineral availability, etc. Beside that, there's possibility that Mars and Earth may have shared some similarities due to their own side-by-side development in the same solar system. Wouldn't it be something to be able to explore such information if it were possible?

But I agree with Dzimas' post [slashdot.org] , if the newly proposed half-life of DNA [slashdot.org] is at all accurate (even within a few orders of magnitude) the likelihood of finding viably preserved DNA is next to nil.

Better to conserve your assets for something more feasible unless there's another, more likely, use for the setup. That being said, as long as it doesn't eat up public funds, I'm all for it. Spend it while you got it, Craig!

Re:The program is useless without the CPU (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41716297)

Nicely put. Just to drive the point home for those who aren't so familiar with biochemistry, DNA is the program for (most) earthly life forms, but the code is interpreted by the ribosomes: they translate the sequence of nucleotides into a sequence of amino acids. I don't find the argument that DNA is the only possible encoding chemical very persuasive, but I am certain that the specific mapping of codons to amino acids is arbitrary--it isn't even the same for all organisms on Earth; there isn't just one "genetic code". So if a scheme like this has any hope of working, it will only be if the Martian organisms share a common ancestry with us.

And, as others have pointed out, the technology to do this doesn't even exist for the earthbound case. We have the human genome sequenced, but no one can synthesize a person from it.

Re:The program is useless without the CPU (1)

tbonefrog (739501) | about 2 years ago | (#41717565)

Mars life has about as much chance of surviving in an earth bacterium in an earth lab as we have surviving in the Martian environment. Either that or it will go all andromeda strain, so make sure to have some alcoholics around to trigger the self destruct switch before it escapes.

dumb (3, Insightful)

slashmydots (2189826) | about 2 years ago | (#41714769)

Yeah, with little if any magnetic field and barely any atmosphere so tons of radiation reaching the surface, and an unlikely chance that alien life has DNA as we know it, that sounds like a great idea.

Re:dumb (1)

SecurityGuy (217807) | about 2 years ago | (#41715621)

I'm with you on this one. This strikes me as epic stupidity. Sending something to a planet where we haven't found any life yet to get DNA from the life we haven't ever found? Knock yourself out, I guess, but none of my tax dollars, please.

Mission Briefing (2)

thygate (1590197) | about 2 years ago | (#41714791)

Bring back sample at any cost. Quarantine LT. Ripley Crew Expendable

Martian Environment (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714797)

The University of Guelph had facilities for exactly this kind of thing, considering the strong biotech focus of the school it probably has something even cooler these days!

Romans' sin is our highest virtue...Hubris! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714799)

We think we can contain something on earth that came from a dead planet.

Why is that planet dead?

Kinda like the pregnancy in "Prometheus," except it's the next planet over... ...but what could possibly go wrong...

It looks like ... (1)

PPH (736903) | about 2 years ago | (#41714841)

... Natasha Henstridge.

Essential ingredient not mentioned (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41714843)

Tax-payer funding to get the project off the ground. Socialize the costs, privatize the profits is the American way.

Hey! Wait a minute! (1)

archatheist (316491) | about 2 years ago | (#41714927)

Didn't I just read on this very site (or possibly Gizmodo; they all run together) that Jurassic Park was impossible because DNA degrades too fast? So how is this going to work? Because I'm pretty sure DNA (if that was how Martian life worked) would be subject to conditions that were even more harsh.

Re:Hey! Wait a minute! (1)

amiga3D (567632) | about 2 years ago | (#41715423)

Shhhhhh! You'll ruin the ending!

Send it to Enceladus instead (2)

Ranger (1783) | about 2 years ago | (#41715069)

We've been exploring Mars for 40+ years now and so far we've not found evidence of life. We are much closer answering the question if it did or does, and I won't be surprised if we find microfossils and even life, but the parameters are very narrow. Now if we send a DNA sequencer to a icy moon of Jupiter or Saturn that has an ocean under it's ice, the odds of finding life go up dramatically. Europa would have been my first choice but we have to get through that thick crust. Enceladus would be even better. It's spewing liquid water into space. So we know where the crust is thinnest. And it does have the ingredients for life. [discovermagazine.com]

We have met the Martians, and they are us. (1)

mbone (558574) | about 2 years ago | (#41715087)

Biological material has been interchanged back and forth between the Earth and Mars [arxiv.org] for billions of years. Based on that, I would bet that there is Martian life, and that it and terrestrial life evolved together.

Re:We have met the Martians, and they are us. (1)

Baloroth (2370816) | about 2 years ago | (#41715685)

Biological material has been interchanged back and forth between the Earth and Mars [arxiv.org] for billions of years. Based on that, I would bet that there is Martian life, and that it and terrestrial life evolved together.

That is incredibly unlikely. Biological material != life, and by all accounts actually making that transition requires very specific environmental conditions which it isn't clear were ever present on Mars (though we can't know that for sure, as we don't even know what the original conditions were, it's almost certain Earth-like life could never live there: oxygen content is too low, radiation is too high, planet is too cold, etc).

Re:We have met the Martians, and they are us. (1)

j00r0m4nc3r (959816) | about 2 years ago | (#41717833)

Biological material != life, and by all accounts actually making that transition requires very specific environmental conditions

A lot can happen in billions of years. So much in fact that I would guess we really have no clue about what kinds of crazy shit has happened since the solar system formed, let alone the universe...

Re:We have met the Martians, and they are us. (1)

mbone (558574) | about 2 years ago | (#41718389)

Why ? I don't consider it unlikely at all. We know that Mars in the early days had a thicker atmosphere and a fair amount of liquid water. (Note, BTW, that life, including spores and various forms of dormant life, is specifically what is meant by biological material.)

Please don't forget that Mars has strong obliquity / orbit driven climate cycles. There are times when the atmospheric pressure (and probably even the humidity) are considerably higher than at present. We are talking about many tons of material being exchanged, over a long period of time. As j00r0m4nc3r points out, a lot can happen in a billion years of experimental trials.

At any rate, this gives a very specific prediction : any Martian life will share DNA with terrestrial extremophiles. Why do you think the SETG is building their sequencer? Exactly to test this. My money would be on it succeeding.

When was the breakthrough here? (1)

WillAdams (45638) | about 2 years ago | (#41715101)

You're saying they can sequence a life form in one lab and reconstruct it in another lab w/o a physical template of any kind?

Has there been a breakthrough beyond:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/05/scientists-create-first-self-replicating-synthetic-life/ [wired.com]

(which AIUI required the shell an existing cell)

Re:When was the breakthrough here? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41716461)

Not really; I love Venter for his big dreams but despise him for the way he overstates his (still significant) achievements.

Re:When was the breakthrough here? (1)

j00r0m4nc3r (959816) | about 2 years ago | (#41717839)

At least someone is trying.

Too much SYFY (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715113)

I'd like to see them "teleport" one terrestrial organism in this manner - pick something simple like an amoeba, sequence it, send the file, then synthesize it from scratch. If they can't do that then I don't think they'll be synthesizing any billion year old martians anytime soon.

Someone should send him a box of Stargate:SG1 DVDs so he can whip up one of those while hes waiting for his DNA sequencer to get to mars.
 

What about my wants? (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 2 years ago | (#41715253)

I want to build a time machine so I can go back in time and meet the Martians when their society was at its peak. Why aren't the LA Times calling me?

Re:What about my wants? (2)

Stirling Newberry (848268) | about 2 years ago | (#41715439)

Make a lot of money and you are an eccentric visionary. Until then, you are just a frustrated nerd.

Re:What about my wants? (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 2 years ago | (#41716423)

Until then, you are just a frustrated nerd.

Hey, how do you...

Oh, right.

Re:What about my wants? (1)

Stirling Newberry (848268) | about 2 years ago | (#41716677)

It's OK, that's why we come to slashdot, I mean the frustrated nerd support group.

Syl (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715271)

Syl

aldkjflekjeslkfjelskjfeslkfjeslkfjslekfjeslfkjesflkjseflkejslkjesf

A terraforming genome would make more sense (1)

Aviation Pete (252403) | about 2 years ago | (#41715497)

Craig Venter should be close to be able to tailor an organism which can survive on Mars and start terraforming the planet, so in future it has more atmosphere and can help to heat the planet for future colonisation.

Now that would be a worthwhile endeavor. This teleporting thing is just headline-grabbing and has no scientific merit.

Re:A terraforming genome would make more sense (1)

SteveFoerster (136027) | about 2 years ago | (#41717619)

Terraforming is that it would be expensive now but only offer a potential return after millenia have passed. Who thinks that long term nowadays?

Tiny brain = tiny thoughts (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715837)

JCV is also a virus.

Wrong ! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41715939)

This is wrong, playing God with extra terrestrial dna ! Sounds like Half-Life to me

Try it on extinct Earth life first (1)

aNonnyMouseCowered (2693969) | about 2 years ago | (#41718021)

Since Mars life would be greatly more different to Earth life, even if we assume the truth of "panspermia" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia), wouldn't it make more sense for Venter to trial his method first on extinct, preferably macroscopic life forms here? The bigger the better. Extinct germs would be more difficult to get rid of than a rampaging T-rex that any survivalist nutcase can gun down. My prime candidate would be those frozen Siberian mammoths, which he could clone into caveman steak.

Re:Try it on extinct Earth life first (1)

Shavano (2541114) | about 2 years ago | (#41719009)

Chances are a lot better with extinct microbes. Smaller genomes would be easier to repair and get working in a cell.

And I doubt extinct microbes would be that much of a threat even if released in the wild. They'd be many generations behind in the ongoing biological arms race between infectious agents and macrobiota and quite possibly defenseless against what modern plants and animals can throw at them. Remember, we are all descended from the animals that made any resurrected bacteria extinct.

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