Before There Was Oxygen

Scientists examining ancient rocks from Western Australia have announced the discovery of fossils of sulfur-loving bacteria from nearly 3.5 billion years ago.  The significance is that there was not much oxygen on Earth back then, and this type of life could have flourished elsewhere in the solar system in the past, or even today.

Tubular microfossils. CREDIT: David Wacey

Readers of In the Shadow of Ares will recognize a clear parallel to an important discovery in the novel.  This is precisely what we had in mind.

Awfully convenient to have human scientists on the ground to know what rocks to examine.   I look forward to the day when we have boots on Mars and can answer some truly provocative questions.

Still, there are plenty of fantastic reasons for going that have nothing to do with science.

Life Imitates Art: Portable DNA Sequencers

FuturePundit points to a NYT article describing something very similar to a piece of technology readers might recognize from the Oasis scene of In the Shadow of AresTaking DNA Sequencing to the Masses:

Dr. Rothberg is the founder of Ion Torrent, which last month began selling a sequencer it calls the Personal Genome Machine. While most sequencers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are at least the size of small refrigerators, this machine sells for just under $50,000 and is the size of a largish desktop printer.

While not intended for the general public, the machine could expand the use of DNA sequencing from specialized centers to smaller university and industrial labs, and into hospitals and doctors’ offices, helping make DNA sequencing a standard part of medical practice…

Rather than culturing a bug to identify what is infecting a patient, for instance, a hospital might determine its DNA sequence. Massachusetts General Hospital is already sequencing 130 genes from patient tumor samples, looking for mutations that might predict which drugs will work best. It has won an Ion Torrent machine in a contest and hopes to put it to that use…

While most experts agree that sequencing will become commonplace in medicine, some say they think Dr. Rothberg is overselling his machine. Like the early Apple II of Mr. Jobs, it is too puny for many tasks, including sequencing the entire genome of a person…

Dr. Rothberg acknowledged that the existing model was good for sequencing a virus or bacterium or a handful of genes, and indicated that future models would be more powerful.

Indeed. Just imagine what forty more years of technological evolution might do to this device, in terms of cost, power, speed, and size.