BACK TO THE X FILES: “THE EHRLENMEYER FLASK”May 10, 2014
Big thanks go out to all of you that sent me this story. In fact, so many of you sent me some version of this story that I simply have to blog about it, because it's an example of how quickly science is moving, and it raises the bar for our typical "high octane speculation" considerably. For reasons that we'll get into presently, I decided to select the RT (Russia Today) version of the story, so, without further ado, here's the story:
As the article states, and as any high school biology textbook would show(or, if you're in the good ole USSA, any graduate textbook), there are four basic proteins in DNA: guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine, abbreviated G,A,T,C respectively. A binds with T, and C with G, forming the four base pairs AT, TA, CG, GC. Four. That's it. No more, no less.
Thus, back in the day, one could speculate: if one encountered some new proteins, say, Nonexistine and Frankenine, then by the nature of the case, one was dealing with something that didn't originate here. The idea became the theme of an episode from the 1990s Sci-Fi hit, The X Files, and an episode called "The Ehrlenmeyer Flask." Mulder and Scully manage to steal a sample of a liquid from a bio-research lab, and Scully takes the sample to be tested. The bewildered geneticist who tests the sample informs Scully that the sample contains two new and entirely unknown base pairs. Scully asks what that means, and the geneticist tells her in no uncertain terms that they didn't originate on earth, and would perforce "have to be extraterrestrial." Predictably, the geneticist ends up suicided the next day.
Which brings us to our RT article:
"American scientists have for the first time ever made it possible for an organism to survive with artificial DNA, making it more likely new medicines can be developed, while raising ethical concerns among some advocates.
"For researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California the breakthrough, published Wednesday in the Nature science journal, was 15 years in the making.
"The announcement is so remarkable because, for billions of years, all life has been made up of DNA subunits categorized by four letters: A, T, C and G. Scientists have now added two new DNA building blocks to E. coli bugs, which then reproduced as normal with the two extra letters in their genetic code.
"The research could eventually lead to the production of completely new proteins that could be used either for medicinal purposes or industrial products. It also lends credibility to the theory that life in outer space could exist entirely without the DNA found on Earth." (Emphasis added)
Precisely...which was the point of the X Files episode.
Now, all ethical problems of synthetic biology aside, the article goes on to note that
“If you read a book that was written with four letters, you’re not going to be able to tell many interesting stories,” he said. “If you’re given more letters, you can invent new words, you can find new ways to use those words and you can probably tell more interesting stories.”
Perhaps, but it seems to me that God/nature/evolution has been doing pretty well, telling millions of stories with just those four letters. The presumption of synthetic biology is, of course, that it can do better.
Or is there a story that is suggested in this article that is not being told, or perhaps, that is being deliberately obfuscated by synthetic biology, a story hinted at in the statement that the addition of "Nonexistine" and "Frankenine" to the system of base pairs "lends credibility to the theory that life in outer space could exist entirely without the DNA found on Earth." It was this question that finally occurred to me when I began to wonder why so many people were sending me various versions of the story, and I thought of the X Files episode.
Suppose, for a moment, just for fun, that one had made "contact" with extra-terrestrial DNA, and discovered "nonexistine" and "frankenine" in, say, a meteor from Mars, or, worse, picked it up during one of those casual invasions of privacy where the government gestapo comes around insisting it has the right to take a DNA swab from your mouth. Suppose, during one of those swabs they found that Mrs. Smith's DNA - and indeed, the entire Smith household - had significant amounts of nonexistine and frankenine. Or suppose that one had discovered it in the Martian meteor and the Smith household.
This, of course, would raise - like the RT article itself - some pretty uncomfortable questions and speculative possibilities, and my bet is, the whole thing might be obfuscated and attributed to "synthetic biology," where similar speculations have been entertained, and were the lowly e coli bugs are now living proof that it's possible.
See you on the
Oh...one more thing... they're already spinning this as yet another great boon, and of course, with the obligatory "cancer cure" bow:
Of course, this raises the stakes, since there have long been rumors that the various American "intelligence" agencies were trying to weaponize cancer in the late 1950s and 1960s, with the implication that, if they knew the mechanisms by which to do so that early, then it is likely they have also known, for a long time, how to interdict those mechanisms and hence, cure the disease...
Ok...now we're done. See you on the flip side.