Alien dinosaur chemists

A short press release in its PressPac earlier this week from the American Chemical Society mentioned intelligent alien dinosaurs. It was bound to pique the interest of the tabloids, wasn’t it? The Daily Mail ran with the bizarre headline:” Welcome new lizard overlords – New study suggests alien worlds super-intelligent dinosaurs.

Of course, the actual paper on which the release was based was nothing to do with dinosaurs or in fact any kind of alien, although it does mention them and the ACS PressPac item does lead on the dinosaurs and has some nice dramatic dino pictures! The paper was actually about chemists trying to understand why we have only one handed forms of amino acids and sugars on earth and how this may or may not have underpinned the emergence of life. An important but relatively mundane topic as far as the general public is concerned.

However, the ACS item and the paper from Ronald Breslow did stretch and extrapolate the concept quite wildly.

According to the PressPac: “Breslow describes evidence supporting the idea that the unusual amino acids carried to a lifeless Earth by meteorites about 4 billion years ago set the pattern for normal amino acids with the L-geometry, the kind in terrestial proteins, and how those could lead to D-sugars of the kind in DNA.”

That’s fine, nothing to do with dinosaurs or aliens. But, then it goes on to say:

“An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D-amino acids and L-sugars. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.”

Yes, the implication is that the chirality of putative amino acids on extraterrestrial worlds may well be of the opposite handedness, but how does that then make this fantastical leap to planets with intelligent alien dinosaurs? I really cannot see the connection between figuring out the origin of homochirality and extrapolating to alien dinosaurs…just bizarre. Breslow is an incredibly well-respected scientist, was he simply joking? Is this something to do with getting the “banned” word dinosaur back into education following the publication of the NYC DofEd’s 50 offensive words list?

Maybe on some alien world there is an emeritus dinosaur chemistry professor musing on the fact that the human tabloid media simply loves aliens and dinosaurs…or maybe not.

Research Blogging IconBreslow, R. (2012). Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth Journal of the American Chemical Society DOI: 10.1021/ja3012897

9 thoughts on “Alien dinosaur chemists

  1. There was a slightly wacky plan, however, to make deuterated food and food with other heavy isotopes in it. These would then be incorporated into the body, with the upshot that the bonds formed would be more resistant to free radical attack. The researchers had some success with worms. Don’t know if they got any further though…

  2. I contacted the ACS for comment on this and was told that the item was merely a short PressPac item rather than a full-blown press release. This is part of what Mike Woods had to say:

    “PressPac stories consist of three paragraphs. The first focuses on the conclusions of the study. The second provides the context. The third summaries the findings. The dinosaur story followed that pattern, and accurately and precisely summarized the research. This is why the conclusions were in the lead in the PressPac.”

    Well, I am not going to argue the point as to whether the item is a press release or not, it was text sent to journalists to promote the ACS and its journal so that sounds like a press release to me, length has nothing to do with it. Woods told me, in so many words, that dinos are, to some people, more exciting than enantiomers. Nevertheless, Breslow’s conclusion has to be the most bizarre extrapolation of a piece on homochirality…

  3. Yep, you’re right Paul. Sorry. I didn’t mean to simply have a go at the tabloids, I was trying to point out how the whole thing from Breslow’s conclusion via press release to tabloid headline is simply ludicrous…

  4. To be fair, the press release from the ACS didn’t just mention alien dinosaurs, it nosed on that and made it the focal point of the release! But, as ever, the messengers get the blame. :)

  5. My friend and fellow science writer Paul Sutherland suggests that most people will see it as a harmless bit of fun. It is perhaps that, but I think it detracts from the fundamental chemistry being discussed that is taking us closer to an understanding of the origins of life on Earth without the need to imagine intelligent alien dinosaurs, that’s all.

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