SCIENTISTS have discovered that inorganic material can take on the characteristics of living organisms in space, a development that could transform views of alien life.
An international panel from the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck institute in Germany and the University of Sydney found that galactic dust could form spontaneously into helixes and double helixes and that the inorganic creations had memory and the power to reproduce themselves.
A similar rethinking of prospective alien life is being undertaken by the National Research Council, an advisory body to the US government. It says Nasa should start a search for what it describes as “weird life” - organisms that lack DNA or other molecules found in life on Earth.
The new research, to be published this week in the New Journal of Physics, found nonorganic dust, when held in the form of plasma in zero gravity, formed the helical structures found in DNA. The particles are held together by electromagnetic forces that the scientists say could contain a code comparable to the genetic information held in organic matter. It appeared that this code could be transferred to the next generation.
Professor Greg Morfill, of the Max Planck institute of extra-terrestrial physics, said: “Going by our current narrow definitions of what life is, it qualifies.
“The question now is to see if it can evolve to become intelligent. It’s a little bit like science fiction at the moment. The potential level of complexity we are looking at is of an amoeba or a plant.
“I do not believe that the systems we are talking about are life as we know it. We need to define the criteria for what we think of as life much more clearly.”
It may be that science is starting to study territory already explored by science fiction. The television series The X-Files, for example, has featured life in the form of a silicon-based parasitic spore.
The Max Planck experiments were conducted in zero gravity conditions in Germany and on the International Space Station 200 miles above earth.
The findings have provoked speculation that the helix could be a common structure that underpins all life, organic and nonorganic.