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Genomic SETI

From the movie Blade Runner: an artificial snake's scales reveal clear evidence of intelligent design.

Anthropologist John Hawks has an interesting post on genomic SETI, responding to a Wall Street Journal essay by Paul Davies promoting The Eerie Silence.  

The rationale for genomic SETI is that terrestrial organisms might have been genetically modified or created from scratch by ancient extraterrestrials, and that evidence of this, even deliberate messages, might be found in their genomes.

Hawks notes the similarity to the intelligent design movement, and it reminds me of the UFO religion Raëlism, which claims that all life on Earth was created as an extraterrestrial experiment (there should be a “teach the controversy” t-shirt about that!).

Despite these associations, the idea merits serious consideration. After all, we know that many species already have been modified by human beings, either through selective breeding in the past, or genetic engineering today. These processes leave evidence – genetic and morphological. If aliens exist, they could have done the same.

Davies mentions that a number of unsuccessful searches have been made for signs of an alien message encoded in junk DNA, as far back as 1979. Hawks warns of ‘”Bible Code”-like delusion, but also considers the logistical problems of ensuring that a message could be successfully transmitted:

Consider the difficulty of transmitting a message through DNA over 10 million years. If your DNA “message” is neutral to the organism’s fitness, then the chance it will eventually be fixed in that population is its initial frequency. So, if you want a 50% chance of survival in that population, you’ve got to find and tag 50% of the individuals. Then, you’ve got to pick which populations will survive. Possibly more abundant populations will be more likely to persist, but you’ll have to tag many more individuals in those cases.

I have a copy of Davies’ book, so I can report that the theoretical method of transmitting the message doesn’t require alien visitors to round up entire populations of animals. They don’t even have to leave their home system.

Instead, an extraterrestrial civilization might consider modifying a naturally-occurring nanomachine to convey their message: viruses. Davies writes:

‘A typical virus contains thousands of bits of information encoded in either RNA or DNA – enough for a decent message. So why not engineer trillions of viruses, package them in pea-sized microprobes, and spew them around the galaxy?’

When the viruses encounter a DNA-based cell, they would be programmed to infect them, inserting their message into the germ cells of an organism. ‘Whole chunks of human DNA’, Davies reminds us, ‘are the genomic detritus of ancient viruses that infected our ancestors.’

There are a host of other logistical problems, Davies admits, such as how the aliens would know that life on Earth used DNA to encode biological information. None of the problems are insurmountable, but it got to the point where I wondered if genomic SETI advocates wouldn’t find it easier to simply assume that life on Earth originated through directed panspermia, perhaps with messages included from the beginning.

And in fact Davies does suggest directed panspermia, but for the creation of an artificial ‘shadow biosphere’ of hardy, innocuous and slow-mutating microbes that, as Hawks suggests, ’differed in some radical way from the rest of life on Earth — different genetic code, lack of common cell machinery like ribosomal RNA, etc.’

Such a population, if discovered, would be a prime place to conduct genetic archaeology.

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10 Responses to "Genomic SETI"

  1. Dave Kaplan says:


    I had this message-in-our-DNA idea a few years back and started writing a story based on the concept. One thing I realized was the elegance of the solution isn’t that the message is passed along with evolution, but that if the message is lost, so is the recipient. In other words, if life on Earth died out then the message isn’t only gone, but it’s pointless to have a message anymore since there’s no one to read it!

    The solution is pure genius. Certainly, it’s how we should do it if we survive long enough to visit alien planets.


  2. Steve says:

    The message might still be accessible to xenoarchaeologists from a third species!

  3. [...] record and our anatomy and physiology. Again it is a done deal. Now there is something called Genomic SETI. Genomic SETI | Space Archaeology This is a real search going on to see if there are [...]

  4. medschoolkid says:

    I see a fundamental flaw with this idea. The reason many genes have been conserved so purely throughout biological history is that they are absolutely necessary in their current form. Any junk DNA, which there is tons of, is highly variable because mutations and alterations here don’t matter. In other words, only coding DNA is highly conserved since mutations are almost always detrimental to the organism.

  5. Matthew Goodwin says:

    Work on posting non biological, non protein coding, genetic sequences in an organism to send a message down through time has already been done. There is a guy at MIT who is a sort of resident artist/researcher/genius/nut/con-artist with one leg who has done it at least twice. If anyone did it a Looonnnngggg time ago, he would be one guy to go to find out.

  6. Justin G. says:

    The idea of encoded information in genomic sequence is a fascinating proposition. The consensus on any doubt rests almost entirely on natural selection and macro evolution. Perhaps however the original program regardless of how complex or evolving has notes similar to the way that a programmer may use a character ignored by the compiler in a program to convey a similar message such as defining what a particular piece of code essentially does. If these messages are then paired with genetic markers that define a contiguous characteristic rather than it’s simple attributes such as the necessity of a pair of eyes rather than their color, than perhaps even in light of natural evolution these “notes” may be retained.

  7. mick says:

    There is as it turns out a rather simple way of solving this problem in an hour or so. Now before I let the cat out of the bag let me state here categorically that there is no way to find out what the message says… but it will tell us conclusively if there is a hidden message of any type in our DNA or any genome you care to mention, and as I said (since we have a good few genomes sequinned these days and available publicly) any programmer could indeed try it out.

    So here’s the gist of it…

    If I take a sheet of paper which has radom letters printed on it (including the space character etc) and I read them into a database and then do a search for the most frequently repeated phrases well I’ll get most likely none. This is because the initial letters were all random, so although there is a chance some might appear more than once essentailly the entire thing will be gibberish and any attempt to try plott a frequency of sequences would be total gibberish…the probability of each phrase would flat line.

    Now language is a different kettle of fish… if I take any book, in any language, or any math, or any computer script and I carry out the same task some ‘words’ or letter sequences will appear more often than others… in fact as it turns out all mathematical formulas, all written language and all computer scripts have at least one thing in common… a plot distribution of the frequency of sequences will produce a graph, starting with the most common all the way down to the least common.

    In english this might be the word ‘the’ or ‘a’ followed perhaps by ‘of’ etc. In Math the most likely character is most likely ‘=’ or ‘divided by’

    In programming is almost always ‘=’ followed by quotation marks and so on…

    SO all we need to do is search the entire genome of every sequence organism so far for sections with the ‘most’ repeated sequences…and if this section resolves to a decreasing appearance of sequences then there is a bone-fide language in there…but we won’t of course know what it says.

    This is because this system would only give you the frequency of ‘words’ or ‘sequence snippets’ it will not tell you what they mean, what order they go in, or if they are mathematical or language or any other form of communication.

    Personally I doubt it, the universe is a very big place and I have better things to do…john hawks on the other hand is a bright guy (regardless of his ideas) I’m sure John can take this up if he likes. It’ll answer his basic question.

    I’d say each billion base pairs would take no longer than an hour or so to read and run through such an algorithm… that’s three hours or the human genome….a lot less than the time it would take to write and test a script to accomplish it.

  8. kapak says:

    why do people assume that 80 or so % of the Gene is junk code?? actually it might be something that in programming we call error handling, which means under various circumstances a part of that DNA code would start reacting and that is what i think gives living creatures their Adaptability. just like what we have when 2 people with the same hidden genetic disease(like near family members) marry, in their child that genetic disease would be amplified. perhaps that code is there for a reason and just because we don’t know what a computer code does, doesn’t mean its meaningless. on the contrary nature proves to be very efficient and normally unnecessary material are automatically erased.

  9. Adam says:

    I invite everyone to watch an episode of star trek the next generation: “the chase” from season 6… This is all so familiar!! lol

  10. David Soland says:

    Look in bee DNA.

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