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Surprising Science

A Race to Sequence the First Extraterrestrial Genome?

Two of nation's highest authorities on genetics say they now plan to search for and sequence DNA from the surface of Mars. Others doubt whether we have the technology. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Two of the country’s highest authorities on genetics say they are now determined to find and sequence alien DNA on the surface of Mars. “In what could become a race for the first extraterrestrial genome, researcher J. Craig Venter said Tuesday that his Maryland academic institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics, would develop a machine capable of sequencing and beaming back DNA data from the planet. Separately, Jonathan Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, a DNA sequencing company, is collaborating on an effort to equip his company’s ‘Personal Genome Machine’ for a similar task.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Some in the scientific community are skeptical of the idea because our machines have been designed to sequence DNA as we understand it on Earth. Sequencing genes on Mars will only work if the DNA there “is exactly the same in its fundamental structure as on Earth,” says Steven Benner, president of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida. He says he’s skeptical that will be the case: ‘It is very unlikely that Terran DNA is the only structure able to support Darwinian evolution.'” For his part, Venter says Martian organisms could be reconstructed in Earthly laboratories. 

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