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Science: COVID, Web Telescope, Protein Structure

By Bob Snodgrass
Posted: 12/14/2020

Participating: Howard, Sally A, Leni, Sharon, Barbara, Gretchen, Bruce and Bob

I arrived a few minutes late to join a thriving discussion. Howard was speaking about the ESA Rosetta Project & the recent announcement that they (ESA) had discovered phosphorus in the coma of comet 67P/Churyumov- Gerasimen.

Using the COmetary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser (COSIMA) instrument on board ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, researchers have detected phosphorus and fluorine in solid particles collected from the inner coma of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.

Comets are remnants from the protoplanetary disk around the young Sun. Being formed beyond the ice-line orbiting the Sun, on average, at distances further than the asteroid belt, and experiencing less processing, they are thought to represent the most pristine matter of the Solar System.

The first detection of phosphorus in a comet came in 1986 in the spectra from cometary dust collected during flyby of comet 1P/Halley by NASA’s Vega 1 mission. It was also
 in dust particles collected by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft during the flyby of comet 81P/Wild in 2004 and returned to Earth in 2006.

“This result completes the detection of life-necessary CHNOPS-elements in solid cometary matter, indicating cometary delivery as a potential source of these elements to the young Earth.”

Life on Earth requires six key ingredients — carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur (known as CHNOPS). Of these, phosphorus is the rarest (although the 11th most abundant element), making it limiting for the chemical reactions of life. The sun, Venus, earth and Mars are relatively phosphorus-rich (P-rich). Claims for microbial life that used arsenic in place of P (it’s the next element in the periodic table) have been made and all refuted.


The sun is relatively rich in phosphorus, so I’m not sure that it’s necessary to postulate that earth’s phosphorus came from comets- the case for a cometary/meteorite origin of much of our water is stronger but is being challenged. I remind you that a few months ago, we had claims that phosphine gas (PH3) in the Venusian atmosphere indicated life- that is dubious now.

Sally told us of her daughter’s work on the sun shield of the new James Webb telescope, which assembled and already loaded onto its launch vehicle and expected to launch this coming summer. Sally may be able to visit and visit and see this spectacle at Grumman-Northrup in Redondo beach. The James Webb telescope, developed in partnership with the Canadian and European space Agencies, is a big deal – it is an infrared telescope, like the now retired Spitzer Space Telescope. You can find material at


Barbara had two presentations for us- first the successful prediction of 3D structure of proteins by artificial intelligence at MIT. It isn’t possible to predict that 3D structure of proteins from their amino acid sequence. The 3D structure determines the accessibility of binding sites (action triggers) which can sometimes be predicted from the amino acid sequence. This is a big deal; verifying the structure still requires crystallization and X ray crystallography.

Second, she gave us the New England Journal of Medicine article reporting many details of the results in 43,000+ volunteers given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. They certainly had adequate numbers of blacks and Latinos. This generated considerable discussion. We’ll be flooded with details of many other vaccines in the next few weeks.


We spent some time talking about the various vaccine issues, then I reported briefly on "The implosion of a billion euro brain model: the movie" about a new documentary film describing a grandiose project to reproduce all the cells and functions of a rodent brain in 10 years and maybe ‘consciousness on a chip’ which failed miserably with loss of much money. Those with grant vision and big claims attract us, but often disappoint. Netflix doesn’t carry In silico at this time. It is available on the website.

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