Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Game of Life

The Game of Life

By John H Reiher Jr.

Darren Reider, xenobiologist, crunched over the sandy beach in his environmental suit. Outside his suit was a dense mixture of nitrogen, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, and other gases, none of which was suitable for life. Well, his kind of live. It was perfect for the variety of life that flourished here.

The temperature outside his climate controlled internal environment was nearly 50°C, and this bit of land was near the pole of this world. The equator rose to a torrid and humid 80°C, and was prone to tremendous hurricanes.

Overhead was an orange sky dotted with a scattering of low clouds, heavy with water vapor. Reider figured that a thunderstorm was in store for the tour tonight. The G2 sun, DM-27 3248, was low on the horizon, about mid afternoon, local time. He made a mental note to schedule a midnight walk during the height of the storm, they were fairly spectacular in this dense atmosphere.

Behind him trudged five of the twenty tourists that made up the “Expedition of Life” tour that Planetary Expeditions, the company he worked for, had organized. Most of the tourists on the tour were academics and biologists. Except for his five. His clutch of tourists won a seat on the tour through a contest sponsored by the Nibloc Corporation. None of them had a clue what the difference was between Euryarchaeota and Eukaryotes. Of course, he admitted to himself, they weren’t stupid. They just didn’t have the background or education in xenobiology or in biology in general.

So why did they enter the contest? The ads promised adventure, romance, danger, wild alien animals, and not…

“Good Lord, not more pond scum!” moaned Harriet Morano. “Rie Reider, why do we have to look at pond scum? If I wanted to look at that, I can look in my neighbor’s pool.” That got a tired laugh from the rest of the group.

Reider stopped at the edge of the softly lapping water of a shallow bay on the island they had landed on. “Rie Morano, what’s wrong with pond scum? This world in fact is very special…”

“If it was so special,” chirped Allyson Morano, the daughter of the elder Morano, “then why does it have charming name of DM-27 3248d? You’d think it would have a name like Bob’s world or something if it was so special.”

Reider held back the reply that it did, “Pond Scum World”, and replied, “Because, junti Rie Morano, this world is as old as Earth is, and yet, one of the highest form of life are the Euryarchaeota that maintain the methane atmosphere of the planet. Life here never took the next step, it has stayed same for billions of years.”

“Why is that rie?” asked Ted Bohanan, a senior manager of a financial firm from Alverez Station, Fomalhaut.

Reider resisted the temptation to sigh; this group had the retention of a bullet-riddled sieve. He looked eastward and then said, pointing at the horizon, “The reason why is that: the planet’s moon.” The group turned to look in the direction he pointed and saw the barely visible crescent of the planet’s moon cresting the horizon.

“The planet’s moon is the reason why?” replied Bohanan. “In what way? How does a moon prevent life evolving?”

He smiled, “That’s a very good question Rie Bohanan, why did that moon prevent life from evolving? Anyone?”

He got five blank stares in response. Strongly resisting the urge to sigh, he continued, “The reason why is that moon, which is larger than Luna, protects this planet and makes it a calm, serene, safe place to live.”

“That makes it sound like a haven for life,” commented Darryl Keels, an information worker from Detroit.

“Exactly, and that’s the problem.” He bent down and with his gloved hand scooped up a spongy, magenta colored mat of prokaryotes. “When life is safe and warm, it has no need to adapt and change. And a large moon does that, by preventing this world from wobbling.”

“And not wobbling makes this world safe?” replied Keels. “But Earth has a large moon and it ‘wobbles’.” The rest of the tour’s helmets bobbed in agreement. “Life isn’t all that safe there.”

“On the contrary,” countered Reider, “life is quite safe on Earth. It has survived at least two iceball Earth events, multiple asteroidal impacts, and even man. But to get there, life on Earth had to have those events happen. Life evolves when it is stressed, forced to adapt and change. Once life reaches the Eukaryotic stage, it can stress itself.”

“What’s u-ka-roat-tic mean?” asked Rae Wordlaw. “I hear the scientists use that term a lot, but I don’t know what it means.”

Reider smiled and said, “A Eukaryote is cell that is organized into what we call organelles and a separate inner cell called the nucleus. The nucleus contains the cell’s DNA and provides a second level of protection. It also allows for a more efficient use of resources by the cell. Life on this world is known as Achaea and there is no organization inside the cell, dividing it into different specialized organelles. It’s just a, um, mishmash.” He held up the magenta mat and said, “This mat is made up of Euryarchaeota, technically, Xenoeuryarchaeota, which specializes in methane production. And if you look at the color of the sky, they are quite good at it. In fact, this species photosynthesizes UV sunlight, nitrogen, ammonia and carbon dioxide to produce methane and nutrients. It’s called Coccinamethanosarcina Reideri… um, it’s named after me. I was first to classify it. It’s very unique.”

He put the mat back into the water, and then sprayed an oxidizer on his glove, killing all traces of the Euryarchaeota. “It’s also very old. Based on its mutation rate, it’s nearly three billion years old. There are nearly half a million different variations of this Euryarchaeota on this planet. And it’s one of the dominant forms of life on this planet. In another three billion years, it will still be the one of the dominant forms of life. It has no need to change, thanks to that moon that keeps this world from wobbling.”

“So what does ‘wobbling’ has anything to do with evolution?” asked Keels.

“For one thing,” explained Reider, “it stresses life. Without a large moon, planets will wobble by as much as sixty degrees off center. Rie Bohanan, in your own home system of Fomalhaut, you have such a world, Dorsey. Currently it has an axial tilt of forty degrees, which radically affects the climate, does it not?”

Bohanan shuffled his feet and said, “I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been there. In fact I’ve never been on a planet before until now. This is the first planet I have ever set foot on.” That drew looks from his fellow tourists.

“Never been on a planet?” asked an incredulous senior Morano. “Rie Bohanan you mean you’ve spent your life whole life on that station?”

“You make it sound like it’s a prison,” defended Bohanan. “Life is good on Alverez Station. It’s…well… safe.”

Reider imagined that Bohanan was blushing behind the UV shielded visor of his environmental suit. “As worlds go, this is a good first world. In any case,” he said, “without a moon to stabilize a planet’s axial tilt, it will wobble to an extent that it will shove life into corners and force it to adapt and change. Dorsey is only a billion years old and it already has an oxygen atmosphere, multicellular life, even animals and plants. It’s a vibrant and growing ecosphere. At the same age, Earth had just barely evolved cyanobacteria and it took another billion years to produce enough oxygen to cause the first snowball Earth event. Dorsey has had an oxygen atmosphere for the past quarter billion years. In one billion years of wobble-induced evolution, Dorsey is where Earth was, about a half a billion years ago. Of course, once life on Earth reached that point, it took off and exploded into the many forms we see today. In a half a billion years, imagine what life on Dorsey is going to be like.”

He watched as that concept sunk into the group. Good, he thought, I got them thinking. So when they visit the next world, they’ll have a better appreciation for how life there evolved. However, we still have this world to finish first.

“So to answer your original question Rie Morano,” he said, “no, we’re not going to look at more pond scum. Instead, we’re going to see something special on this island, something we call ‘quasi-multicellular life’. If it finds a niche in this environment, it will change how life on this world will evolve. Want to go see it? Do you want to see the game of life in progress?”

He was greeted with an affirmative chorus and then he and his clutch of willing students headed down the ocean shore…

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The Game of Life is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.