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Amino Acids, Sugars, Chirality, and Dinosaurs from Space

A new paper from noted American chemist Ronald Breslow was recently accepted by the Journal of the American Chemical Society. It's titled, "Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth," but you may know it better as "the one study that says 'advanced' dinosaurs could rule other planets."

This is a tad confusing, because the paper itself wasn't about dinosaurs at all. It centered on chirality, a property of an object, organism, or molecule which means that the object is not identical to its mirror image. Human hands are a good example of chirality. Your left hand can never be perfectly superimposed upon your right. In fact, this example is so ideal that chemists and molecular biologists dub chiral molecules as having either "left-handed" or "right-handed" chirality.

Noted in the paper, sugars and amino acids -- two of the major building blocks of life -- are homochiral, which means they all vastly follow either right-handedness or left-handedness. Sugars tend to be right-handed (D-sugars), while amino acids tend to be left-handed (L-amino acids).

Breslow's primary goal with the paper was to postulate on how this homochirality came about on Earth. He argued that meteorites carrying organic material struck the Earth almost four billion years ago and thus seeded life with left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars.

ja-2012-012897_0006.gifThough thoroughly fascinating, the paper probably wouldn't have garnered much attention from the media. Chirality simply doesn't quite captivate a mainstream audience. But you know what does? Super-intelligent advanced dinosaurs from space! In the paper's conclusion, Breslow states:

"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." (added emphasis)

This conclusion spawned a headline arms race across the internet on Wednesday. A few of my favorites: "Scientists Say Intelligent Dinosaurs Could Rule Other Planets." "Dinosaurs from Space!" "Dinosaurs: This is the greatest closing paragraph to a scientific paper ever."

The last headline gets at the point I'd like to make with this post. Breslow's conclusion was only mildly connected to the paper's primary focus and a tad overstated. This may not be kosher with some, but frankly, I'm okay with it. Embellishment like that, though slightly misleading, makes science fun and accessible to the masses. If Joe Schmoe -- while aimlessly surfing the web -- gets drawn in by a headline touting "space dinos," reads the article and learns a little about chirality and the origins of life, then no harm has been done. It might even inspire Joe to become a molecular biologist!

Now, of course, scientists should use restraint when crafting attention-grabbing conclusions. If the researchers who conducted the study, "Roles of the Drosophila SK Channel (dSK) in Courtship Memory" ended by stating that fruit flies with slightly altered genetics could TAKE OVER THE WORLD, well, that's not okay. That's just crazy talk.

dinosaurs-everettcollection-636.jpgPossible super-intelligent dinosaurs?