[extropy-chat] Are Nanobacteria Alive or Just Strange Crystals?

Terry W. Colvin fortean1 at mindspring.com
Tue Jul 13 04:00:49 UTC 2004

Forwarding permission was given by William R. Corliss.

Science Frontiers, No. 154, Jul-Aug, 2004, p. 3
< http://www.science-frontiers.com >


Are Nanobacteria Alive or Just Strange Crystals?

J.C. Venter in his shotgun-sequencing of marine microorganisms has proved
that life can exist in almost unimaginable diversity.  And we are only
considering life-as-we-know-it.  Venter's trawls through the Sargasso Sea
may have also netted bits a [sic] organized matter that are not yet
recognized as being alive---they are just *too small* to live.

The generally agreed upon domain of life is limited to entities larger
than 140 nanometers (140 x 10^-9 meter).  It is thought that anything
smaller would not be roomy enough for the DNA and proteins essential
for life's functions.  However, the history of science is littered with
overturned assumptions.  Therefore, we must consider the possible existence
of nanobacteria---lifeforms smaller than 140 nanometers.

In doing this we are opposed by the opinion of J. Maniloff, University of
Rochester, such an inquiry "...is the cold fusion of microbiology."  (This
may be a bad metaphor considering the last item in SF#153 announcing the
possible mainstream resuscitation of cold fusion!)

Fossils of nanobacteria have been claimed to exist in ancient rocks and
even in meteorites thought to have come from Mars.  The latest evidence
for the existence of nanobacteria---*live* nanobacteria---comes from an
unexpected source: diseased human arteries!  Such is claimed by J. Lieske
and a team of doctors at the Mayo Clinic.

Lieske et al have isolated tiny cell-like structures that self-replicate
in a culture medium.  They can be identified with an antibody and DNA stain.

But skeptics say they will remain unconvinced until DNA unique to these
supposed *impossibly small* life forms is described.

(Hogan, Jenny; "Are Nanobacteria Alive or Just Strange Crystals?" *New
Scientist*, p. 6, May 22, 2004)

Comments.  The nanobacteria question takes us to the borderline between
life and non-life.  Viruses are usually considered alive, but they cannot
self-replicate.  Crystals can self-replicate but no one thinks quartz
crystals are alive.  Could nanobacteria be an unrecognized form of matter
occupying that limbo between what we arbitrarily define as living and

Does this biological limbo really exist?  Does non-life grade smoothly into
life such that our defining these two states of matter is an exercise in

Finally, we can imagine that life is a universal property of matter---
sometimes obvious, other times cryptic.  We can even imagine that dark
matter, which still eludes our instruments but yet pervades the universe,
is pregnant with life.

[Science Frontiers is a bimonthly collection of digests of
scientific anomalies in the current literature.  Published by
the Sourcebook Project, P.O. Box 107, Glen Arm, MD 21057.
Annual subscription: $8.00.]

"Only a zit on the wart on the heinie of progress." Copyright 1992, Frank Rice

Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA) < fortean1 at mindspring.com >
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