[Magazine] Scientific American. Vol. 297. No 6

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Known organisms share a similar biochemistry and use an almost identical genetic code, which is why biologists can sequence their genes and position them on a single tree. But the procedures that researchers use to analyze newly discovered organisms are deliberately customized to detect life as we know it. These techniques would fail to respond correctly to a different biochemistry. If shadow life is confined to the microbial realm, it is entirely possible that scientists have overlooked it. Ecologically Isolated Aliens Where might investigators look for alien organisms on Earth today?

The chance of confusing a separate tree of life with an undiscovered branch of our own tree is diminished if one considers more radical alternatives to known bio chemistry. Astrobiologists have speculated about forms of life in which some other solvent (such as ethane or methane) replaces water, although it is hard to identify environments on Earth that would support any of the suggested substances. ) Another popular conjecture concerns the basic chemical elements that make up the vital parts of known organisms: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus.

GLAST can then determine the role these newly found particles play in the universe at large. Any such particles will escape from the accelerator too quickly for physicists to fi nd out whether they are stable, so GLAST’s data will be essential for determining whether the particles can live long enough to serve as dark matter. GLAST will also dovetail with efforts to detect the dark matter directly as it streams through our planet [see “The Search for Dark Matter,” by David B. Cline; Scientific American, March 2003].

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