Thursday, August 30, 2007


In the 1957 short story "The Fly" by George Langelaan a brilliant scientist Andre Delambre invents a teleportation machine where he can teleport objects from a disintegrator to a reintegrator. When he tries to teleport himself, his body parts get mixed up with that of a fly that was with him in the disintegrator pod. He emerges with the head and claw of a fly, while the fly ends up with his shrunken head.

There has been two classic movies based upon this story. The 1958 movie keeps the idea of the scientist (played by Al Hedison) switching heads with the fly but the 1986 re-make took the idea further by mixing the scientist (Seth Brundle played by Jeff Goldblum) and the fly at the genetic level to create a new organism - Brundlefly.

Inserting genes from one species into the DNA of another has been accomplished many times by scientists, we call it genetic engineering. For example there is a genetically modified tomato that contains pig genes - the Pigmato. Such gene insertion happens naturally too and is known as lateral gene transfer but it was thought to only occur between bacteria. However, scientists at the University of Rochester have now found instances of natural lateral gene transfer between a parasite wolbachia and fruitflies - wolbachiafly.

Such natural genetic engineering means that scientists can now incorporate both vertical and lateral gene transfer processes into the theory of evolution. Lateral gene transfer can help explain problems in inferring phylogenetic (evolutionary) trees based on the sequence of one gene.

Friday, August 17, 2007

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it

An August 10, 2007 paper from the New Journal of Physics titled "From plasma crystals and helical structures towards inorganic living matter," presents computer models that suggest that plasma in stars or in interstellar space may self-organize into DNA-like helical structures and may exhibit properties that we normally associate with life.

Is it as Dr. McCoy used to tell Captain Kirk "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it?" I don't think so, though it does raise the question of what is life?

Life made from plasma is not a new idea in science nor science fiction. Such exotic forms of life have been considered in science before. In science fiction there are many books where humans not only encounter life within stars but intelligent life. See for example, Sundiver, by David Brin.