David Toomey: Bizarre Biology

David Toomey: Bizarre Biology


Weird Life book coverDavid Toomey, author of the new nonfiction book Weird Life, discusses odd organisms and the likelihood of life beyond Earth.

Zola: Let’s cut to the chase: Do aliens exist?

David Toomey: If by “aliens” you mean life beyond the Earth, the answer, of course, is that no one knows, but scientists have made guesses. There are sound arguments for both positions. On the one hand, there are billions of stars as potential suns, and tens of billions of planets now estimated to be orbiting them. Life’s most basic needs-energy and matter-are met in many places in our universe (and in others, if they exist), and have been met for billions of years. Given these numbers, it would indeed seem arrogant of us to think there’s no life anywhere else. On the other hand, the chemical reactions that occur within a living cell are fantastically complex, far more complex than most of us realize.

While it’s true that astronomers have identified amino acids (famously called life’s “building blocks”) in deep space, amino acids are relatively simple molecules of only a few dozen atoms. It takes millions of amino acids arranged, just so, to make a protein molecule, and thousands of protein molecules of various sorts must be manufactured every second in a single cell. Many of the steps that lead from amino acids to proteins are only imperfectly understood; no one really knows exactly how complex chemistry develops into simple biology, and it’s far from certain that the process is common, let alone inevitable. Given these numbers, it’s quite possible that we are here alone.

Zola: What is the weirdest living creature you have personally witnessed? How about the weirdest living creature that’s now extinct?

DT: “Weird life” as I use the term, is a catch-all for life that is not descended from the last universal common ancestor, and thus is fundamentally different from life we know. To my knowledge, I have never seen any weird life, nor has anyone. It’s theoretical.

But since you asked-biologists and other sorts of scientists have hypothesized many sorts of weird life. Some might be only slightly weird, using, say, certain amino acids not used by familiar life. Some might be moderately weird, perhaps enabling their chemistry not with water but with a liquid like ammonia or liquid methane. Some might be very weird, like for instance living interstellar clouds of dust grains and complex molecules organized by electromagnetic forces.

Zola: What organism most fascinates you?

DT: This week, I’d have to say the octopus. It has a very complex nervous system, but part of it is localized in its brain. Two-thirds of it is found in the nerve cords of its arms. In a sense, the octopus has a large brain and small brains in its arms. I think that’s rather amazing.

Zola: Where do you think the next frontier is in terms of the discovery of life?

DT: I suspect you may be alluding to the 2010 claim by astrobiologists who thought they had uncovered weird life when they discovered a bacterium in California’s Mono Lake that they claimed used arsenic instead of phosphorus to build DNA and proteins. The claim has been discredited. Although many organisms do live in Mono Lake, a place rich in arsenic, those organisms have been known and studied for decades.

Zola: Are you a fan of science fiction? Any favorite sci-fi books, movies, or TV shows?

DT: No. I do not mean to be dismissive of science fiction, but I think the universe we have is more exciting and fascinating and it has the added virtue of being real.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.