DNA-Shaped Dust In Plasma May 'Live'

A new computer simulation shows that dust immersed in ionized gas can organize itself into DNA-like double helixes. These dust structures can behave in many respects like living organisms.

The dust helixes can store information; the scaffolding of their 'bodies' can have two stable states - with different size diameters. That way, a spiral can contain sets of wide and narrow sections.

It appears that the specific order of these sections can be copied from one dust spiral to another, like a genetic code. The researchers aren't sure how it happens, but they think each narrow section of spiral creates a permanent vortex of moving dust outside it. So if another spiral drifts alongside it, that vortex pinches the same length into its narrow state.

Scientists probably wouldn't classify it as "living" - hurricanes are similarly self-organizing systems, but you wouldn't call them "alive."

The team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, are now looking for these structures in nature. One possible place to look is in the rings of Saturn; the dust particles would be fine ice grains and the plasma supplied by the solar wind.


(Closest image of Saturn ring structure [NASA Cassini])

The "life-processes" of these dust-grain structures would run about a hundred thousand times slower than those found in the biochemistry of the creatures of Earth.

Science fiction fans have already had a taste of this idea. In his 1957 story The Black Cloud, an enormous space cloud seems to threaten the Earth. See a related story Magnetic Fields Found To Shape Planetary Nebulae.

Another fascinating example of celestial phenomena exhibiting life-like properties is the solar "tadpoles" found in solar flares; read more about Solar Tadpoles.

Read more at Hot Gas in Space Mimics Life and Could alien life exist in the form of DNA-shaped dust?. Thanks to reader Misja van Laatum for the tip on this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/15/2007)

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