If You Were a Secret Message, Where in the Human Genome Would You Hide?

Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) uses the VLA (Very Large Array) to look for alien signals. But that’s not the only way. Warner Brothers

When people think about SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, they imagine messages sent via radio—Jodie Foster tuning antennas, hoping to pick up signals from the “billions and billions” of star systems pondered by Carl Sagan. Potential extraterrestrials might be beaming out messages into space and all we need to do is listen for them. Of course, even using light—the fastest possible signal-carrier—we would still have to wait years for messages from even the closest stars to reach us. And that presumes that we are listening at just the right moment in the Universe’s 13.8-billion-year history. The odds that different civilizations across the galaxy overlap so precisely that we could listen right now to aliens’s messages could be quite low.

But there’s another potential way to send signals across the cosmos, albeit one that requires a great deal of patience and expertise: storing messages inside genetic material. Encoding a message in an organism or virus and then sending it on an interstellar voyage to other planets requires a long wait—it might take eons for intelligent life to evolve on the destination

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus5 min read
The Deepest Uncertainty: When a hypothesis is neither true nor false.
Georg Cantor died in 1918 in a sanatorium in Halle, Germany. A pre-eminent mathematician, he had laid the foundation for the theory of infinite numbers in the 1870s. At the time, his ideas received hostile opposition from prominent mathematicians in
Nautilus5 min read
The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years
One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classi
Nautilus5 min read
Dark Matter Gets a Reprieve in New Analysis
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. The galactic center shines too brightly, like the glow of a metropolis at night where maps show only a town. To mend their cosmic cartography, astrophysicists have spent years debati