Nanobes announced

Damien Broderick (
Sat, 20 Mar 1999 13:38:21 +0000

Major press coverage this weekend in Australia for the apparent discovery by Aussie geologist Dr Philippa Uwins, at University of Queensland's Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis, of a new class of life-forms at the nano scale, retrieved in a commercial oil drilling sample from 5 kilometres down off the West Australian coast. This work, done with UQ microbiologists Rick Webb and Tony Taylor, was published in *American Mineralogist, An International Journal of Earth and Planetary Materials, Volume 83; No. 11-12, Part 2* back in Nov/Dec 1998.

The paper is in

but the hotlink to the abstract gave an error message.

What look like archaic biota ranging upward in size from an improbably small 20 nanometres can tolerate 170 degrees Celsius and 2000 atmospheres pressure. They grow in extremely hostile environments such as a scanning microscope's vacuum (cue Dr Fred Hoyle), and most astounding of all they `appeared to move,' according to Uwins. `When I put the electron beam on them, they moved away, which is not a typical mineral reaction.'

The scale of these proto- or archaeo-biota is close to that reported of the remnants claimed in Martian meteorites. Although the nanobes are several times too small to contain the complex enzyme systems needed for life, preliminary DNA tests by UQ archeologist Tom Loy are positive, and he has begun sequencing under an Australian Research Council grant.

Implications that strike me at once range from some version of the Andromeda Strain (`They released the Germs from Hell, which will eat our surface world!') to the Great Filter (ditto, except that this happens on *every* inhabited world once it gets the technology to drill down 5 km) to an existence proof of the feasibility of nano-scale machines, and maybe a useful set of pre-evolved gadgets to tweak to build dedicated nanobots.

Interesting times, as ever.

Damien Broderick