September 2, 2010

Musings on the Implications of Synthetic Life on Astrobiology

A year before Craig Venter announced the successful creation of the first synthetic lifeform, i asked him what insights it could bring to the science of Astrobiology. I asked what it would mean if synthetic lifeforms gave off different biosignatures and how that would be beneficial to those curious about life on other worlds.

I don’t think i got a concrete answer from Craig Venter at that time, and even after that, I’ve never really read any writeup about the tremendous impact synthetic life will bring to Astrobiology. That was then during the Crossroads conference, way back in May 2009 where Dimitar Sasselov was present as well.

I simply headed home that night with a glimpse of the ground-breaking event that lay ahead.

A year later came Venter's announcement of the first ever synthetic lifeform. Now Fast forward to July 2010, Sasselov suddenly mentions Synthetic Life in his controversial TED talk. But everyone was simply distracted by the controversy and confusion introduced by Dimitar when he used the word "earth-like" rather than "earth-sized". Perhaps many missed another big picture--which is the link between Synthetic Biology and Astrobiology and the impact it would bring to our culture and future.

Now imagine this scenario:

Consider a planet, and know it’s properties, such as surface gravity, atmospheric composition, pressure and chemical characteristics, temperature, and so on. Then create a model of that environment, or a subset of it--called a “hab bubble”. Virtually design an extremophile microbe that would survive within that bubble. Simulate the microbe and it's habitable bubble in a "virtual world". Send that simulator on-board a probe, continuously adjusting the parameters as the probe travels toward an exoplanet. Feed the simulator with updated data as new findings are discovered along the way. Upon reaching the destination, manufacture the microbe using local resources or chemicals on that planet, "build and live off the land". Then unleash the lifeform by setting it loose on the surface of the exoplanet.

This simple scenario became the inspiration for a short story, my first #fridayflash or #FlashFiction entitled “The Biosynthe”.

The Biosynthe (Short Story)
Craig Venter's Synthetic Lifeform
Dimitar Sasselov's TED Talk