Monday, September 14, 2009

Intelligent Life, Revisited

In an earlier post I discussed terrestrial organisms, i.e., life forms on earth, living in extremely hostile environments. Our conception of where life can exist has been expanded dramatically as a result of deep sea explorations, for example, where scientists were astounded to discover giant tube worms thriving at 8000 ft at hydrothermal vents leaking scalding, acidic water. It would seem then, that extraterrestrial life becomes even more probable, because the conditions under which life can survive and even thrive have widened considerably.

Yet, when we consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life, we seem invariably to conceptualize only in terms of the self-contained organism; what I term the 'ET paradigm.'

But what if intelligent life was organized differently? What if it looked like the image below instead? This is an immunoflourescent image of a neisseria microcolony and its radiating pili. Neisseria gonorrhoeae is the bacterium that causes the infectious disease gonorrhea. Scientific studies are showing how bacteria like neisseria crawl to and exchange genes with each other. Other studies are investigating how some microbes got here to earth in the first place. Got here and perhaps, planted in and/or exchanged genes with us.

Humans are covered inside and out with bacteria. We depend on bacteria for essential functions, like digestion. Bacterial cells outnumber human cells by 10 to 1 and microbiologists believe that humans and their commensal, i.e., symbiotic, bacteria are continually adapting to one another genetically. In some sense, we humans are a kind of superstructure for a microbial colony. But that's not really what I mean to convey. I see humans as an integral part of an organic membrane that stretches across the universe, from one end to another in space-time. I'll say more about this later, when I discuss space traveling bacteria.

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