Today is the first day of my course on molecular evolution and I want the students to experience the give-and-take of scientific—and not so scientific—debate in the blogosphere.
Their first assignment is to read the following quotation from an article by Paul Davies and answer the question that follows.
Paul Davies is a professor at Arizona State University. He was trained as a physicist and he lists his interests as cosmology, quantum field theory, and astrobiology. The quotation is from an article he wrote last April in the Wall Street Journal [Is Anybody Out There?: After 50 years, astronomers haven't found any signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. They could be looking in the wrong places.]
Another physical object with enormous longevity is DNA. Our bodies contain some genes that have remained little changed in 100 million years. An alien expedition to Earth might have used biotechnology to assist with mineral processing, agriculture or environmental projects. If they modified the genomes of some terrestrial organisms for this purpose, or created their own micro-organisms from scratch, the legacy of this tampering might endure to this day, hidden in the biological record.Here's the question. Assume that the aliens inserted a 1000 bp message in the same place in the genomes of every member of our ancestral population from five million years ago. At that point every organism in the species had exactly the same message in a region of junk DNA.
Which leads to an even more radical proposal. Life on Earth stores genetic information in DNA. A lot of DNA seems to be junk, however. If aliens, or their robotic surrogates, long ago wanted to leave us a message, they need not have used radio waves. They could have uploaded the data into the junk DNA of terrestrial organisms. It would be the modern equivalent of a message in a bottle, with the message being encoded digitally in nucleic acid and the bottle being a living, replicating cell. (It is possible—scientists today have successfully implanted messages of as many as 100 words into the genome of bacteria.) A systematic search for gerrymandered genomes would be relatively cheap and simple. Incredibly, a handful of (unsuccessful) computer searches have already been made for the tell-tale signs of an alien greeting.
If you were to sequence that very same region of your own genome what would the message look like today? Would it be different from the original message of five million years ago? Is there a way of reconstructing the original message and interpreting it?
Comments will be held until tomorrow evening in order to give everyone a fair shot at coming up with an answer.
Photo Credit: Lieutenant Ellen Ripley communicates with aliens.