Sunday, September 12, 2004

Chemical bonds and bounds.

Had a couple martinis and fruit smoothies with Katie last night and thus some interesting conversations too. Staring into the pureed strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and soy milk and feeling satisfyingly healthy, I wondered what exactly was so beneficial about the emulsion of water, sugar, cellulose and delightfull esters. Perhaps the body makes use of all sorts of trace chemicals from the plants, or maybe it "enjoys" breaking them down with various enzymes, insofar that doing so necessitates the expression of said various enzymes, and thus using the system keeps it well oiled. Maybe not, but the immune system needs such pressures to keep it up and running, and a similar phenomenon is seen with the benefits of slight amounts of toxins (Hormesis).

This quickly leads one to wonder what the limits are for the capabilities of carbon based organisms. In one sense it seems likely that we are near the top, almost every molecule in our bodies is serving a purpose, either storing information in DNA or transporting energy as ATP, or forming the cellular membrane or one of the transport chains in it, or just one of the water molecules that allows all enzymatic chemistry to take place. But then genetic evolution must proceed continuously along minimas in abstract fitness space, perhaps there are much deeper minimas off the beaten path which are separated by insurmountable peaks. And it seems a bit overly redundant to repeat the same DNA sequence in each of our bodies 1000 trillion cells - so much more information could possibly be stored! Sure, you couldn't design an organism that could jump 100 meters up into the air or eat lava, but, perhaps, could you design one with an extremely adaptable enzymatic digestion system, so that when presented with almost any organic compound it could experiment with it at a purely chemical level, designing a way to break it down and extract energy from it, or at least not be poisoned by it? So that, say, you could step out from your spaceship onto an alien ecosystem on a planet orbiting Vega, break off one of the spiraling purple branches from the surreal shrubbery, and chew on it contemplatively, as your high tech innards deduce the molecular structure in real time, extracting energy from familiar carbon-hydrogen bonds, and thwarting the advances of opportunistic alien viruses? Could such a system be prevented from immediately digesting itself, or effectively neutralize the inevitable hyper-cancers (perhaps via a recursive series of preventative mechanisms, each with a very low probability of failure...)? Could such a system be realised in a 100 kilogram, 100 watt organism, so that it could also run a four minute mile and do calculus?

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