Are Aliens Among Us?

In pursuit of evidence that life arose on Earth more than once, scientists are searching for microbes that are radically different from all known organisms.

Paul Davies in Scientific American:

Screenhunter_01_nov_20_0831Thirty years ago the prevailing view among biologists was that life resulted from a chemical fluke so improbable it would be unlikely to have happened twice in the observable universe. That conservative position was exemplified by Nobel Prize–winning French biologist Jacques Monod, who wrote in 1970: “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.” In recent years, however, the mood has shifted dramatically. In 1995 renowned Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve called life “a cosmic imperative” and declared “it is almost bound to arise” on any Earth-like planet. De Duve’s statement reinforced the belief among astrobiologists that the universe is teeming with life. Dubbed biological determinism by Robert Shapiro of New York University, this theory is sometimes expressed by saying that “life is written into the laws of nature.”

How can scientists determine which view is correct? The most direct way is to seek evidence for life on another planet, such as Mars. If life originated from scratch on two planets in a single solar system, it would decisively confirm the hypothesis of biological determinism. Unfortunately, it may be a long time before missions to the Red Planet are sophisticated enough to hunt for Martian life-forms and, if they indeed exist, to study such extraterrestrial biota in detail.

An easier test of biological determinism may be possible, however. No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself, so if life does emerge readily under terrestrial conditions, then perhaps it formed many times on our home planet.

More here.