Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Space Dinos! Prebiotic Chemistry Meets Paleozoic Commentary

Source: Columbia Giving
When I open Google News, I usually expect to see trade agreements, protests, car shows, or sports quotes. But, when I read a title like Dinosaurs from Space! (Smithsonian), or Do Intelligent Dinosaurs Really Rule Alien Worlds? (Discovery) I'm admittedly drawn in.

Ready for the real shocker? It's a paper published in JACS! No joke - here's the ACS presser. Bonus: the paper's written by a well-respected research lion - Ron Breslow, long a veteran of Columbia's chemistry department (Aside: I couldn't recall if ChemBark had seen Breslow's professorial "portrait," (right), courtesy of Columbia's University Giving Office).

The paper, a Perspective, reads fairly well: Breslow muses about the origin of homochirality on the early Earth, a subject near and dear to researchers such as Robert Shapiro, Albert Eschenmoser, Jack Szostak - and #1 on Philip Ball's list of chemical "grand challenges." Breslow recalls that scientists measured small enantiomeric excesses in amino acids, from 2-15% of the S (also called "L-") form, found in several meteorites that fell to Earth in the last 50 years. He then demonstrates, using a clever mix of solvation energies and autocatalytic reactions, some possible prebiotic setups leading to enrichment of single-enantiomer sugars and amino acids. 

Sound good? Well, it's all fine up until the closing paragraph - again, no exaggeration on my part:
"An implication of this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could exist life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars...Such life forms could even be advanced versions of dinosaurs,  if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them."
Artist's Representation: Life Elsewhere
Source: fanpop.com
I'm actually both horribly amused, and somewhat embarrassed by that conclusion. It's playful and exciting, yes, but, as others have pointed out, it sounds suspiciously like bait to draw sensationalist reviews and lure more casual readers. 

Well, two can play at this game! Without further ado, I'd like to offer a few novel O.O.L. speculations of my own: 
- On "Earth 2," in a far-off galaxy, a preference for body hair, muscles, and heavy brows favored Neanderthals over modern humans. 

- Life on distant planets proven to be highly evolved amoebas, who had the good fortune never to form into any multi-cellular critters.

D-amino acids + L sugars = Luck Dragons?
Source: Kristen Lamb
- In the land of Fantasia, a young boy named Atreyu must find the Nothing killing his world (wait, no, that's the Never Ending Story...).


- On Planet 2G, slightly different rules of gravity and lack of water, combined with a preponderance of slightly chiral amino acids led to...really beautiful crystal gardens, but not much life. (sorry, everyone!)

16 comments:

  1. That Breslow portrait is dying for a caption contest.

    "Hey, what's this blue stuff? And where are my damn lab glasses?"

    My favorite descriptions of alien worlds are from John Scalzi's "Old Man's War", specifically the smart mold planet. Good stuff.

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    1. "I see I've concluded another successful synthesis of blue raspberry Kool-Aid. I must inform the postdocs!"

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    2. Hmmm, I wonder if the reactions in that solution have negative rate constants?

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  2. Hey! You could combine these ideas with the physics idea that there are infinite parallel universes and posit that there is an alternate earth where humans (made with L-amino acids and D-sugars) ride around on feather-covered tyranosaurs (made with D-amino acids and L-sugars).

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    1. Aw, you just stole the plot to my next Teen Sci-Fi Hype Machine Novel Series! Was thinking of calling it "The Homochirality Games," perhaps "Game of Dinos," or maybe "Harry Potter and the Editor's Review Process"

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  3. He's done this at least twice before:

    Tet Lett, 2011, 2028-2032
    Tet Lett, 2011, 4228-4232

    But obviously nobody reads Tet Lett...

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    1. The two papers differ mainly by the title. Both are dedicated to Harry Wasserman on his birthday. It could be that in this case the journal published the original submission and a minor revision. Publishing the same thing twice for the same purpose in the same journal in the same year has to be an editorial error in some form. Every journal should make use of a program like Turnitin to check for potential copying of any sort of for editorial errors.

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    2. I'm pretty sure the article was deliberately re-published, to correct errors in the original. (Admittedly, this is, itself, a very unusual move by a journal.)

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  4. I read those references martyn...Breslow reuses large parts of the Tet. Lett. papers verbatum in his Jacs paper...Elsevier could technically ask JACS to retract the new paper for plagerism.

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  5. @Anon(1:44) - I hate to dredge up an old argument, but I must: can one plagiarize oneself? Stylistic no-no, yes, repetitive, sure, but ethically wrong? I mean, he wrote it the first time, too...

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    1. From The ACS Journals' Ethical Guidelines http://pubs.acs.org/page/policy/ethics/index.html

      "Authors should not engage in self-plagiarism (also known as duplicate publication) - unacceptably close replication of the author’s own previously published text or results without acknowledgement of the source. ACS applies a “reasonable person” standard when deciding whether a submission constitutes self-plagiarism/duplicate publication. If one or two identical sentences previously published by an author appear in a subsequent work by the same author, this is unlikely to be regarded as duplicate publication. Material quoted verbatim from the author’s previously published work must be placed in quotation marks. In contrast, it is unacceptable for an author to include significant verbatim or near-verbatim portions of his/her own work, or to depict his/her previously published results or methodology as new, without acknowledging the source. (Modeled with permission from Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics: Authorial Integrity in Scientific Publication http://www.siam.org/books/plagiarism.php)"

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  6. Considering "Space Dinos", when the meteorite hit 65 million years ago, the ejecta it generated had enough velocity to escape Earth's gravity. It is highly likely that the ejected material could have found its way to Mars, Europa, Titan and Enceladus. Theory supports the notion that genetic material, even microbes or small fauna (such as water bears) could have been carried from Earth to these bodies. Perhaps after all this time, there could be the equivalent of a Cambrian explosion beneath the ice on Europa and Enceladus.

    More, a lot of that ejecta could have left the solar system and over 65 million years, could have reached the planets we've been finding nearby that have liquid water. It is possible that those planets could potentially be harboring primitive life similar to early life on Earth.

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  8. Oh, snap! I just tried to read the infamous paper. I got this message from the JACS website:

    Note

    This article was removed by the publisher due to possible copyright concerns. The Journal's Editor is following established procedure to determine whether a violation of ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research has occurred.

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  9. @See Arr Oh:

    I just watched the "Mirror, mirror" episode from "Star Trek: The Original Series". Do you suppose that Evil Spock and Evil Kirk are made of D-amino acids?

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