Synthesizing mirror life as one of hypothetical explanations of Fermi paradox?

Can synthetic life lead to extermination of civilization?


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Jarek

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There is a possibility of synthesizing mirror version of our life (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_life) - with cells built of mirror versions of standard molecules (enantiomers), and our civilization is slowly approaching this point - in 2016 there was synthesized mirror version of a large and crucial protein (polymerase) in a Chinese lab: nature.com/news/mirror-image-enzyme-copies-looking-glass-dna-1.19918

However, it is also opening a Pandora box - completely new life which has a possibility of dominating our ecosystem due to nearly not having compatible natural enemies. Here is a WIRED article estimating that mirror cyanobacteria (single cell organism which is able to photosynthesize), could exterminate our type of life on Earth in a few centuries: "Mirror-image cells could transform science - or kill us all": wired.com/2010/11/ff_mirrorlife/

As this is a natural possibility in technological development of civilization, which might be unstoppable for dominating ecosystem and exterminating its original life, maybe it should be considered as one of hypothetical explanations of Fermi paradox?
 

Venusian Broon

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Interesting, but like all filters as explanations for the Fermi paradox there are loads of 'ifs and buts' and probabilities. Hence a single world may be consumed by (by the looks of it, a very large number) of bad choices and (probably) random instances, but could it happen to every single world that evolved sentient life? I'd hazard a probable no to your question, in this case.

Making a mirror protein is not the same, by far, as making a mirror cell, as the Wired article points out. We are probably still pretty far from that. And if and when we get to that point and somehow there is leakage of a mirrored cell. Well, first there ain't a lot of food out there for it! So that's a good thing.

Alternatively, yes we could also be good scientists and build safeguards into these cells., but that doesn't mean that someone bad or some bad people would actively want to take a negative approach (i.e. weaponise it? or go full 12 Monkeys?) So there is that.

Mind you If it got to the point we could manufacture a mirrored cell, and it escaped and it damaged our ecosystem, then surely we'd also know some ways of manufacturing an antidote to the spillage?

Anyway the doomsday scenario given is if a mirrored cell is made that can photosynthesis...but one wonder why someone would want to mirror that process, when this is so dangerous? Would it be these hypothetical bad people that want to end all life including their own? (One could possibly imagine a very specific future where they engineer a whole load of other stuff to remain alive at the end of it and the whole of the current ecosystem dead, but that seems a very meagre existence to aim for, where's the power? what's the point! Plus it doesn't really explain the Fermi Paradox, there's still sentient life there and it will expand and grow again...probably)

Possibly other 'bad' alien life could use this technique to destroy another alien's planet, maybe even because they are, themselves, mirrored and therefore would, possibly be able to use the ecosystem, (well, what's left of it) for their own...but surely if you could get a payload across interstellar distances, there are much easier and importantly quicker ways of wiping out ecosystems, which they could then utilise with follow up missions.

I'd put it in the with the 'Nuclear holocaust' reasoning for the Fermi Paradox, just because we have weapons/techniques/science that might/could wipe out a civilisation does not mean that all such civilisations will. And therefore isn't a good explanation for the Fermi Paradox.
 

Jarek

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The list of considered hypothetical explanations of Fermi paradox is long (e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox), and I would rather imagine a probability distribution in a hypothetical "chronicle of extinct civilizations" - the question is if mirror life is worth adding to such a list, trying to estimate its probability for civilization extinction ... and if it should be considered as a possible danger in development of our civilization?

We are probably pretty far from that, but does it mean 10 years? 100? 1000? In all these cases it is nearly negligible in cosmological timescale - if it is not preventable (?), maybe many civilizations could already extinct this way (?) ... or accidentally through some other synthetic life. We know many cases of invasive species replacing the original ones, and a completely new microbe would try out a countless number of interactions, some of them might turn out more successful than the existing ones - finally dominating ecosystem.

Mirror life has, among others, financial incentives for mass production of mirror versions of our large molecules, proteins (e.g. aptamers in the Nature article) - like for CRISPR babies, it might be impossible to prevent opening this Pandora box (?) - natural in development of civilization in our stage.

Regarding building safeguards, microorganisms have extremely fast evolution - can we design safeguards which cannot be removed by evolution?

Also manufacturing "antidote" seems an impossible task - e.g. seas are literally filled with cyanobacteria, a single mirror version could replicate and finally dominate the seas as natural enemies of the original ones would have compatibility issues - how to stop such process after it already began?

While synthesizing cyanobacteria is obviously extremely dangerous, other mirror life might already turn out deadly, populating unusual ecological niches. Additionally, chloroplasts (and mitochondria) are believed to originally be separate organisms - maybe e.g. mirror E. Coli could also merge with a photosynthesizing cell, or just find a symbiosis?

Indeed mirror life also brings lots of ideas for SF stories, e.g. start of synthesizing of mirror humans - incompatible with most of our pathogens, but also probably toxic ... or meeting of civilizations based on opposite chirality ...
 

Venusian Broon

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The list of considered hypothetical explanations of Fermi paradox is long (e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox), and I would rather imagine a probability distribution in a hypothetical "chronicle of extinct civilizations"
I've been looking into quite a lot of Fermi Paradox stuff. That list is a bit small :)

My initial thoughts were that the situation you're positing is quite a late explanation for the 'Great Filter' - we are almost at the point where we can analyse the atmospheres of exo-planets and therefore gain some harder evidence of the existence or not of sentient life (not conclusive, but much better than we thought only decades ago). Well, as long as the James Webb Telescope actually gets up there...

Hence I'd suggest that if the Great Filter is the explanation for the Fermi Paradox, then the 'Great Wall' that's stopping civilisations is, in human terms, much earlier in our history - my guess on current evidence stopping virtually any civilisations developing. These technical extinctions that require a civilisation to develop the means to wipe themselves are too late in my eyes as an explanation.

But the main issue with the Great Filter is that it needs to be so watertight to explain the silence, it starts to seem a bit unfeasible. We just need one civilisation to 'pass all the tests' in the galaxy (I believe we have a good estimate of between 20-40 billion earth-like habitats in the Milky Way, and there of course could be a whole host of other habitats where life flourishes where we have not discovered) be expansive and effectively colonise the entire galaxy in a geological blink of an eye.

- the question is if mirror life is worth adding to such a list, trying to estimate its probability for civilization extinction ... and if it should be considered as a possible danger in development of our civilization?
Of course, totally agree. It's a sort of slow 'Grey goo' scenario.

We are probably pretty far from that, but does it mean 10 years? 100? 1000? In all these cases it is nearly negligible in cosmological timescale - if it is not preventable (?), maybe many civilizations could already extinct this way (?) ... or accidentally through some other synthetic life. We know many cases of invasive species replacing the original ones, and a completely new microbe would try out a countless number of interactions, some of them might turn out more successful than the existing ones - finally dominating ecosystem.
Of course, evolution is blind and if a form of life appears with a significant advantage in the conditions prevalent it will survive. Look at the arrival of photosynthesising cyanobacteria that (eventually, they had to work hard!) paved the way for oxygen breathing life.

Regarding building safeguards, microorganisms have extremely fast evolution - can we design safeguards which cannot be removed by evolution?
It's all a bit in the air I'm afraid! We can't know, till we get to that point. You can be all doomsday about it and point out all the negatives, but...what if by the time we are actually able to construct a mirror cell, we are so advanced, any such spillage or escaping organism is so inconsequential because of our much more advanced knowledge and technology. It could then just be like wiping a lab bench down.

Making a fresh cell ("It Lives!") is a bit like AI research. A lot of people believe it will happen within mere years, but I think it's going to be a lot longer than most people think. Yes, in cosmological terms tiny, but if even it was 100 years for creating mirror cells (which I might say, if I'm being positive), who's to say what else we'll come up with along with it - even just the knowledge and engineering to get that cell.

So here's the thing. If a mirror cyanobacteria was to fall out of the sky, hit the ocean and start breeding today. Yeah, we're probably f**ked. But we're talking about us developing it and it's not going to come any time soon.


Also manufacturing "antidote" seems an impossible task - e.g. seas are literally filled with cyanobacteria, a single mirror version could replicate and finally dominate the seas as natural enemies of the original ones would have compatibility issues - how to stop such process after it already began?
Re: above! When making a cell itself seems an impossible task, in the first place, whose to say what sort of engineering and techniques will be available to us when it is possible. It may be very easy to clear this up. How can one compare two impossible tasks against each other :)

Indeed mirror life also brings lots of ideas for SF stories, e.g. start of synthesizing of mirror humans - incompatible with most of our pathogens, but also probably toxic ... or meeting of civilizations based on opposite chirality ...
Personally, I am starting to warm to the idea that advanced civilisations should tend towards developing Dyson swarms around their suns. Planets are so passé! With a full Dyson swarm (probably constructed using the material of the planets orbiting the sun, but that's not necessary - plenty more material from the star itself) there'll be billion of times more area for life to flourish, compared to an Earth sized ecosystem. In space like that there will be plenty of room for leftie and rightie chirality organisms to peacefully co-exist!
 

Jarek

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I don't know about probability of reaching our stage, but mirror life seems a serious threat for such a civilization:
  • There is this second world of biological macromolecules, e.g. optimized for extremely complex tasks through billions of years of evolution - which could be mass produced for mirror analogues of given task. Now we know that mirror aptamers are useful, but it is a matter of time when we will find other useful molecules in this mirror world. Finding e.g. promising drug for a common disease, or enzyme with industrial applications - the only way to synthesize it in kilograms/tonnes will be through mirror life - it seems inevitable that there will be soon huge financial incentives to create mirror life.
  • Beside financial incentives, there are also ambitious ones - "because we can", and there are succeeding media announcements in recent years: of synthetic cell, ribosome, virus, new nucleotides. There are no doubts that we are going toward synthetic life, but designing it is extremely difficult - mirror copy of our life is the first non-trivial really different and working synthetic life, seems a natural milestone in development of a technical civilization a few decades in front of us, and its realization will become easier every year due to natural technological developments, e.g. reaching molecular 3D printer which could be also used to print frozen mirror cell.
  • While technologically reaching this synthesis seems a few decades away, I don't see how to stop e.g. its population of our seas? There are nice SF movies with omnipotent nanorobots, but microbes are already nanorobots - optimized through billions of years of evolution using entire planet. Assuming we could speed it up a thousand times in a lab, it is not fast enough, and physics has its limitations - evolution made that our microbes are close to some local optimum, global optimum might not be much better.
 

picklematrix

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CAN being the operative word, I have to say yes. If humans actually create synthetic life and it does wipe us out, then it would be reasonable to believe that other alien civilisations had fell afoul of similar synthetic life.
 

Venusian Broon

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CAN being the operative word, I have to say yes. If humans actually create synthetic life and it does wipe us out, then it would be reasonable to believe that other alien civilisations had fell afoul of similar synthetic life.
My point would be that it is also probable that if humans actually create synthetic life it may not wipe us out, hence it's not a good Fermi Paradox solution.

However, of course, it could wipe out an civilisation, if all the cards stacked up the right way.
 

picklematrix

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My point would be that it is also probable that if humans actually create synthetic life it may not wipe us out, hence it's not a good Fermi Paradox solution.

However, of course, it could wipe out an civilisation, if all the cards stacked up the right way.
I agree, the for the Fermi Paradox I don't think it's a huge consideration. Afterall, synthetic life could conceivably be just as inventive and outgoing as whoever created it, if not more.
 

Jarek

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The problem is that creation of synthetic life, especially mirror, seems much simpler than defending from its unpredictable consequences - successful microbe going wild becomes virtually impossible to control, can completely change our ecosystem, e.g. mirror cyanobacteria consuming nearly all CO2.
Much before creating synthetic higher life, there will be much more dangerous synthetic microbes ...
This is additional danger, e.g. to nuclear self extermination, appearing for a civilization in our stage ...
 

Venusian Broon

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The problem is that creation of synthetic life, especially mirror, seems much simpler than defending from its unpredictable consequences - successful microbe going wild becomes virtually impossible to control, can completely change our ecosystem, e.g. mirror cyanobacteria consuming nearly all CO2.
Much before creating synthetic higher life, there will be much more dangerous synthetic microbes ...
This is additional danger, e.g. to nuclear self extermination, appearing for a civilization in our stage ...
Well, you do qualify your statement with 'seems'. :) I still think it's really hard. We've got a long, long way to go. Lines of research that look into mirror stuff have been proposed and worked on, in the past, now and into the future, but may ultimately turn into dead ends or be economically unviable. Better methods that don't use chirality could be lying out there for some of the aims.

I'd also question if we could really do a 'successful' artificial* microbe that really could survive in the wild. At least in the short to mid-term. Eventually, assuming we don't destroy ourselves, I don't see why we couldn't. But when that will happen, I don't know. (Actually, will we be trans-human by then anyway and have our minds uploaded into machines? In such a scenario, such a catastrophe will not really matter!)

However I agree that there is some very interesting work that is spurring some to look at using mirror molecules. Also it's good to remember that all technology has limits and downsides, as well as positives. So pointing out such doomsday scenarios is useful.

-----------------------------------------

* Artificial in the sense that totally constructed by us and totally alien to our ecosystem as the doomsday scenario posits. We can today of course alter cells and viruses genetically and that's a form of artificiality, but it minor modifications to everyday stuff.
 

Jarek

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2002 - synthetic virus: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_virology
2010 - synthetic cell: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_cell#Synthetic_cells
2013 - synthetic ribosome: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_ribosome
2016 - large mirror protein (polymerase)

How many years to synthesize mirror E. Coli? I would say 20-50 years.
How our war with standard E. Coli is going? Some say it is only worsening due to antibiotics resistance.

... or compare it to contrast in attack-defense development of nuclear weaponry ...
 

Venusian Broon

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2002 - synthetic virus: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_virology
Yes, from my limited understanding of genetics, such things are now relatively easy to do. Virus being a tiny bag of small strands of DNA/RNA. Opportunity for terrorists and bad guys to engineer horrible diseases and epidemics of course. No need to do anything much more complex.

2010 - synthetic cell: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_cell#Synthetic_cells
From the article itself: So far, no completely artificial cell capable of self-reproduction has been synthesized using the molecules of life, and this objective is still in a distant future although various groups are currently working towards this goal.

2013 - synthetic ribosome: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_ribosome
To be honest I have limited experience of up to date genetics and biology, but a quick look at the paper of the people that made the synthetic ribosome, suggest to me that their approach, which would be good at producing quantities of desired peptides, may not be a very good system for an actual cell. However I may be wrong and am more than willing to listen to someone up to speed in that field. (I have a few PhD friends who were in Biochemistry when I was doing my Physics PhD, who might know much more!)

2016 - large mirror protein (polymerase)
A cell is much much more complicated than a few proteins. However I agree we can't be too complacent; Research, especially in the biochemical/genetic world is more than likely going to grow much faster the longer survive...

How many years to synthesize mirror E. Coli? I would say 20-50 years.
How our war with standard E. Coli is going? Some say it is only worsening due to antibiotics resistance.

... or compare it to contrast in attack-defense development of nuclear weaponry ...
...but I think your time scale is too short for something as complex as an actual E. Coli. There is still a very long way to go - same as AI (and nuclear fusion, always 50 years away since 1950, and that in essence is a seriously 'simple' problem compared to the other two :)). Anyway I'm a bit more pessimistic/cynical. In 50 years the consequences of Global warming could be seriously hampering our civilisation and all such developments in science. If we are too stupid to not fix that, and the jurys out on that one I feel, then we won't get to the point of creating artificial life IMHO.
 

Jarek

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Sure it is technically challenging, but it seems building a simple mirror cell is a matter of synthesizing all the mirror molecules (we are close to be ready for), pumping them into a membrane (it seems we are ready to do), and ensuring some details like membrane proteins (a matter e.g. of copying how nature does it).
Anyway it is relatively straightforward - we basically know what we need to do, and many are currently working on various technical details of this process, which have much wider applications than synthesizing mirror life ... which, wanting or not, will eventually become in reach due to this natural development.

From the other side, we have completely no idea how it will interact with a countless number of other organisms, or how to really defend even from standard E. Coli.
I have some experience with machine learning for chemoinformatics - virtual screening for drug discovery, and it is basically walking blind - randomly guessing billions of configurations, hoping that used heuristics works ... even so, bringing to the market takes another decade.

And comparing to fusion mainly focused on one huge ITER, biochemistry research is much more distributed ...
 

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