by Elous Telma
On a secluded Greek island in the 1950s, an enormous abandoned mine is filled with sea water for a major international experiment in marine biology. It is intended to study natural selection and, perhaps, evolution in a new aquatic ecosystem. However, the experiment and the island are eventually abandoned.
Decades later, a sailor’s photograph of the corpse of a large shark prompts a team of biologists to visit the island. The team discovers unique environments, including an underwater brine lake. The life forms act in ways that affect the fauna on the island as well as themselves.
The new ecosystem is dangerous. How to cope with it? The biologists will need some form of interspecies communication with the sea life and even with a cat that has been stranded on the island. It’s simple in theory...
Chapter 2: A Bottom-Up Approach to Keeping Things Alive
Nannion’s love for seafood and docile nature had gotten her stranded alone on a small deserted island in the southern waters of Greece. A few tens of meters from where she was, in the open waters of the Aegean Sea, other animals live their life cycle at the opposite extreme of the geographical scale.
There are animals that live on a truly global scale and make use of much of the earth in their travels. Whales, birds, even some large sharks. The humpback whale makes a round trip of twenty-six thousand kilometers every year. Earth’s circumference is forty thousand kilometers.
Earth is not infinitely large and, throughout human history, people have sensed that it was limited. Some thought you could fall off the edge of the Earth if you travelled too far; now we know you just go in circles.
Mythology has always speculated about what might lie beyond our known world. We are natural explorers, and our nature may come not only from an academic desire for knowledge but also from our condition as residents of a finite ecosystem; we feel choked. Wars speak to this point. As a species, humans are fascinated with the idea of habitable space. No wonder, then, that major efforts to discover life outside Earth are being funded graciously.
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One such major effort was the 1976 NASA mission to Mars. On that year, they landed a research station called Viking, packed with instruments that would determine if life was Earth’s exclusive privilege, or not. There was a lot of hype for this mission, and all of it was due to the prospect of finding life on the Red Planet.
Unfortunately, no conclusive signs of life were detected, meaning that either Mars was likely sterile, or the tiny spot on which Viking landed was sterile and devoid of any biochemical indicators of life. Scientists don’t like negative results. In this case, the public didn’t either. Within the scientific community, huge debates were ignited. Are these results definitive? Are the detectors good enough? Should we try again?
How do you detect life? Even if the detector works perfectly, do you know that what it measures can prove or disprove life? To settle the score, a replica of the Viking instruments was taken to a river teaming with life, here on Earth, and the machine declared it also sterile. We had just realized we did not know how to define life, not just on Mars, but also here on Earth.
A child could determine better than NASA instruments whether life exists in a river. But the child uses experience, not objective criteria; he can also be fooled by, say, a robot, the wind through a bush, or the imagination. NASA was measuring the presence of particular chemical bonds, but whether these are proof of life or necessary for all types of life was a different issue.
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Every now and then, we are compelled to assume that the presence of some chemicals we find outside Earth require life to be produced, but then some able chemist shows how that is not necessarily the case. All sorts of exotic chemistry can, in principle, generate catabolic and anabolic reactions.
The catabolic reaction releases energy and gets the organism going. Then then the organism builds larger molecules. Eventually, it builds tissues from small molecules using anabolic reactions. Together, catabolism and anabolism constitute metabolism, a necessity for life as we understand it here on Earth.
Like naïve children, adults also rely on experience to define life and death. A meteor that originated in Mars was examined in the mid-1990s by electron microscopy. Shapes resembling ultra-tiny fossilized bacteria were found. Many immediately convinced themselves that these structures were indeed fossilized bacteria.
Whatever those structures were, they sure looked like bacteria. But that line of thought has also convinced some people that the Loch Ness monster also exists. To this day, there is no conclusive evidence whatsoever that these structures are not simply tiny bits of rock.
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Proving that something is alive is a formidable challenge. Proving something is dead is oftentimes just as hard. In fact, we recognize life and death mostly by experience and less by a defined set of rules. A dead man is a dead man, and we think we can recognize this, but then again, it takes a group of doctors with extensive medical training to call you dead or alive.
Making the distinction is a demanding task and mistakes do happen. They used to put cords into coffins, connected to bells outside the grave in case wrongly presumed deceased people regained consciousness and found themselves buried alive by their loved ones.
In many cases, our gut feeling is pretty good: If you blend a man into small pieces, more often than not, you will kill him. If you blend a flatworm into small pieces, though, you may get many new flatworms.
The current record stands at about 280 pieces of a single flatworm, each being able to regenerate a new, healthy animal. These are flatworms of the genus Planaria; tiny, well-formed creatures with a front and a back and a pair of eyes, which exhibit extraordinary regenerative capacity and which comprise a favorite research tool of many labs around the world.
With flatworms, it takes a biologist to call death, and even so, it can be hard to tell. And if you ask what happens to the flatworm’s soul: does it split from one into many, or does it remain a unit of entangled souls? One may posit there is no answer. Ask a flatworm priest.
Or watch videos of human cells of the immune system, isolated from the body and placed on a Petri dish, moving around and searching for bacteria to engulf and eat. Even to the trained eye, it is hard to distinguish such behavior from that of an amoeba in a petri dish. In a way, we, too, can be split into constituent parts, and these can continue their life independently, presumably without stealing any part of our soul.
Most of the criteria we apply to define life are not unique to living organisms. The ability to replicate, for example, is also seen in underwater molten rock formations, where bubbling lava hardens in the water, trapping biological molecules in them. The next rock bubble may become connected to the previous one by a tiny crack through which biologicals can be exchanged. These molecules may be capable of replicating themselves through chemical reactions, thus populating new rock bubbles over many cycles. We don’t feel this example of replication constitutes life.
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We are basically not equipped to define life. We are only able to recognize life forms that are similar to us, by extrapolating the perception of our own life. We still make mistakes. How will we discover life outside the Earth if we cannot even perceive what it may be like?
By the same token, have we discovered all life form types here on Earth? We are still debating the existence of nanobacteria. These would be ultra-tiny bacteria, much like the supposed fossilized one on the Martian meteor. They seem able to incorporate some molecules used in the DNA chain, but this is more likely just a chemical reaction happening within these little structures. They can get calcified, giving them a shell similar to the hard shells of many animals, but this may have nothing to do with life. Instead, they appear to be complex inanimate objects able to contribute to kidney stone formation.
After all this confusion about our own Earthly nanobacteria, how can we even hypothesize that we have found fossilized nanobacteria on a meteor from Mars? On Earth, as in the Heavens, life is a difficult thing to detect.
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All these arguments about the possible existence of life outside the Earth relate to life that is similar to life on Earth. This is life that is inextricably linked to water — water as a component of the life form as well as its environment.
Water provides physical support to the organisms and it acts as a solvent for many compounds, allowing them to form chemical interactions among themselves and build the life form. If you know any artists, ask them to imagine an alien life form. Most, if not all, will not be able to come up with anything that is not directly based on animals found on Earth.
Even Hollywood and folklore rely on unusual animals for inspiration for their monster characters. Uninspiringly, many textbooks depict imaginary residents of the salty water oceans under the ice crust of Europa, the moon of Jupiter as common jellyfish here on Earth. This is indeed reasonable, but perhaps not very insightful.
Imagine, now, an alien life form that lives in a water-free environment. Perhaps something that lives in lakes of hydrocarbon and ammonia. Such environments may allow catabolic and anabolic reactions. Such lakes have been discovered on the surface of Titan, the largest of the moons of Saturn. There is a chance to discover life, and we cannot even imagine how it might look or behave. If we come across it, it will be critical not to miss it.
If you take a petri dish coated with agar — seaweed-based food for bacteria — and leave it open in the air to give bacteria a chance to land on it, for every bacterial species that manages to grow and form a visible dot-shaped colony, maybe a thousand will fail. We really don’t know how to culture most organisms, including most bacterial species.
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Imagine trying to culture complex life. Imagine trying to keep a giant squid in a tank: how would you go about it? Now, you could go out in the ocean, catch one, put it in a tank, and hope that the food you give it, together with all other aspects of its artificial environment — temperature, pressure, salinity, organic material content, fluctuations in all these parameters, etc. — are just right for it to live. But we know so little about these animals that we can forget this option.
Another approach is being investigated in New Zealand and elsewhere. Sample ocean water, which contains microscopic plankton of the giant squid, and keep it in the lab. Just make sure the conditions in the tank are similar to those where you sampled the water. And hope for the best.
The advantage here is that there are probably thousands of its planktonic counterparts for every one adult giant squid in the ocean. They, at least, solve the problem of acquiring start-up material. You don’t need to go out in the ocean and catch a giant squid; you can grow a giant squid in a matter of weeks in these special fish tanks.
Of course, as the squid grows, its needs change. We don’t know what these new needs are. Maybe the squid needs deep waters, colder temperatures, alternating warm water/low pressure and cold water/high pressure. The squid dies when it is still just inches long.
Maybe increasing the size of the tank would help. That would provide more parameters, such as more temperature and pressure options. As it grows, the squid can chose its own environment and alter its food by moving into deeper waters or changing its diet, according to its new needs. When it comes to vivaria, the bigger, the better.
Following the end of War World II, much of the West craved peace but also big ideas. Back in the 1950s, an international team of oceanographers pitched the idea of building a very big aquarium, to provide new possibilities for what might grow in it.
Sea creatures would have so much space they would essentially be free. Visitors would be confined in glass-walled structures inside the aquarium, while scientists would have control of the ecology and be able to pursue a wide range of marine biology studies.
The aquarium would be two kilometers in diameter and another two kilometers in depth. And the scientists already had a location.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma