Saturday science subject: Dust life


— 2:01 PM on August 11, 2007

The conditions necessary for life to arise are a hot subject of discussion among some scientists, but new research suggests life could even arise from dust clouds. As the New Scientist reports, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany believe plasma crystals that behave like life could form in spirals of electrically charged dust well outside the confines of our—or any other—planet.

Like DNA, the dust spirals can store information. They do so in the scaffolding of their bodies, as they have two stable states — one with a large diameter and the other with a small one — so a spiral could carry a series of wide and narrow sections.

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.

The spirals even feed, in a sense, as they need fresh plasma to survive and grow, suggesting they may compete with one another for food. Since they are also capable of passing on their genetic code, then perhaps they could evolve into more complex structures.

According to Gregor Morfill of the Max Planck Institute, the places most likely to harbor such life—if it can indeed exist—are the rings of Saturn and Uranus. There, the dust would be fine grains of ice, and the plasma would be supplied by solar winds.
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