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Claim of Alien Life in Meteorites Needs Further Review

Image of permineralized remains in the one of the meteorites studied by Richard Hoover. Credit: Journal of Cosmology

A recent paper published by a NASA scientist claims the discovery evidence of fossil bacteria in a rare subclass of carbonaceous meteorite. The claims are extraordinary, and were the paper published somewhere other than the Journal of Cosmology, (and given an “exclusive preview” on Fox News) more people might be taking this seriously. But, even so, the topic went viral over the weekend.

Titled “Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites” and written by NASA scientist Dr. Richard Hoover of the Marshall Space Flight Center, the paper makes the bold claim that meteorites found in France and Tanzania in the 1800s (the Alais, Ivuna, and Orgueil CI1 meteorites) have clear evidence pointing to space-dwelling microbes, with inferences of panspermia — the theory that microbes brought to Earth in comets and meteorites could have started life on our planet. “The implications,” says an online synopsis of the paper, “are that life is everywhere, and that life on Earth may have come from other planets.”

The paper states: “Filaments found in the CI1 meteorites have also been detected that exhibit structures consistent with the specialized cells and structures used by cyanobacteria for reproduction (baeocytes, akinetes and hormogonia), nitrogen fixation (basal, intercalary or apical heterocysts) and attachment or motility (fimbriae).”

Dr. Chris McKay, a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, pointed out to Universe Today that Hoover’s claims are “extraordinary, because of the ecological setting implied. Cyanobacteria live in liquid water and are photosynthetic.”

McKay said finding heterocysts (cells formed by some filamentous cyanobacteria) would certainly be indicative of life from an actively thriving environment. “The implication of these results is that the meteorite hosted a liquid water environment in contact with sunlight and high oxygen,” he told Universe Today in an email.

Several scientists from various fields have written commentaries on this, (see astronomer Phil Plait’s take, biologist PZ Myers (from my alma mater) and microbiologist Rosie Redfield (who refuted the “arsenic life” finding late last year), and there’s tons more about this available, and Alan Boyle at MSNBC’c Cosmic Log is keeping a running update) but everyone seems to agree that verifying that the structures — rods and spheres seen in rock — are actually fossilized bacteria is very difficult to do.

Image at 1000 X of multiple filaments and sheaths embedded in Orgueil meteorite. Credit: Journal of Cosmology

There have been previous reports of bacteria in meteorites, but most have turned out to be contamination or misunderstanding of the microscopic structures within rocks (remember the Alan Hills Meteorite claim from 1996 –which is still widely controversial.) It turns out that Dr. Hoover has reported fossil bacteria previously, but none have actually been proven. And, it also turns out that Hoover’s paper was submitted to the Astrobiology Journal in 2007, but the review was never completed.

“Richard Hoover is a careful and accomplished microscopist so there is every reason to believe that the structures he sees are present and are not due to contamination,” McKay said. “If these structures had been reported from sediments from a lake bottom there would be no question that they were classified correctly as biological remains.”

There are two possibilities, McKay said. “One, the structures are not biological but are chance shapes. In a millimeter square area of meteorite there are million possible 1 micron squares. Perhaps any diversity of shapes can be found if searching is extensive.”

Or the second possibility, McKay said is that “the environments on meteorites are, or were, radically different from what we would expect. There are suggestions for how meteorite parent bodies could have sustained interior liquid water. But not in a way that could have the liquid water exposed to sunlight. It also seems unlikely that high oxygen concentrations would be implied.”

There’s also the question of why Hoover would choose to publish in the somewhat dubious Journal of Cosmology, an open access, but supposedly peer-reviewed online journal, which has come under fire for errors found in some of their articles, and for the rather sensational claims made by some of the papers published within.

But word also was released by the Journal of Cosmology that they will cease publication in May 2011. In a press release titled, “Journal of Cosmology To Stop Publishing–Killed by Thieves and Crooks,” (posted by journalist David Dobbs), the press release said that the “JOC threatened the status quo at NASA,” and that “JOC’s success posed a direct threat to traditional subscription based science periodicals, such as “science” magazine; just as online news killed many newspapers. Not surprisingly, JOC was targeted by science magazine and others who engaged in illegal, criminal, anti-competitive acts to prevent JOC from distributing news about its online editions and books.”

UPDATE: NASA has released a statement on Hoover’s paper, saying that “NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper.” – Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington

But Hoover’s work is generating a huge buzz.

The journal’s editor in chief, Rudy Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, said Hoover is a “highly respected scientist and astrobiologist with a prestigious record of accomplishment at NASA. Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis.”

“No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis, and no other scientific journal in the history of science has made such a profoundly important paper available to the scientific community, for comment, before it is published,” Schild added. Those commentaries will be published March 7 through March 10, and can be found here.

Certainly, further review of Hoover’s work needs to be conducted.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 7, 2011, 6:48 AM

    Let the dogs of alternate pseudoscience begin….
    Seen all this nonsense before. If you have the evidence then show us. Else it is mere supposition.
    Frankly, it is all about funding here, and working towards not being made fools of (Yet, once again) Q. Do these bugs eats arsenic or, perhaps now, should we?

  • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 7, 2011, 6:55 AM

    Biology evidence in a cosmology paper?
    Something really sounds quite fishy to me.

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 7, 2011, 7:13 AM

      Thinking about it. Would this be better published as an IEEE paper?
      After all, the basic definition of life is the spark of electrical activity that now works in every living cell?
      Also, if “…Hoover’s work is generating a huge buzz.”, then I’d assume this is electrical too?

      (It would be just as credible, don’t you think?)

  • HeadAroundU March 7, 2011, 7:23 AM

    I don’t like Panspermia. So, why even write an article? :D I mean, Fox news, Republicans, Panspermia, Creationism… why even waste 100 scientists? Why fuel it? Next time, ask me what I don’t like and we will save our precious time. :) Just let 5 scientists to study these structure and that’s all…and don’t forget to promote their creationist penispermia books. :)

  • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 7, 2011, 7:30 AM

    Panspermia? Isn’t that’s how you fall pregnant? ;)
    [I think I also heard that once on FOX news, too?]

  • Peter March 7, 2011, 7:46 AM

    The basic premise of Panspermia is flawed. We know our world is conducive to life because it’s coated in it. We can therefore assume a world like ours is necessary or at least works for life in general. We have never found another place in the universe that seems even remotely likely to have our conditions. Yes, some extremophiles can live for some time in the cold and radiative conditions of space but for the thousands of years necessary to get here from some unknown faraway place??? And what luck they would find earth at all if harboured aboard some random chunk of blasted rock. Panspermia seems to take the unlikely development of life here and make it thousands more times so. I wouldn’t bet on it.

    • Uncle Fred March 8, 2011, 7:48 AM

      Given how quickly live evolved here, It seems it might not have been so unlikely after all. However as you correctly stated, Panspermia is a stretch – feasible perhaps, but unlikely.

  • Don Alexander March 7, 2011, 8:15 AM

    The JoC is “somewhat dubious”? No, I’d say it’s a JoKe…

    The first “volume” consisted of a single article from a fringe “scientist” who also set up the webpage itself…

    This is all a huge amount of crock.

  • Feenixx March 7, 2011, 10:26 AM

    I would not be surprised if much of all this “news” (a large Planet in the Oort Cloud, Bacteria metabolizing Arsenic, Bacteria in Meteorites, a seasonal Methane cycle on Mars, and so forth) turned out to be part of a viral “marketing” scheme orchestrated by a state-owned company who is permanently fighting against budget cuts, in order to keep some public excitement going. This would also explain the choice of a wacky publication like JofC…

    this, of course, is an extraordinary claim and entirely a figment of my imagination – requiring an extraordinary proof, which I am not going to supply, thus following the trend being set by some extraordinary blogs.

    but anyway, Hon. Salacious B. Crumb, are you implying something like this when you write it is all about funding? Please, say “yes” – I mostly respect you comments here quite a lot, and your endorsement would make me feel a lot less like a paranoid lunatic.. ;)

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb March 7, 2011, 10:29 AM

      Yes!!! (Did I have a choice?) :)

  • cipater March 7, 2011, 12:12 PM

    By golly, it looks like that rock has Morgellons disease!

  • fractal March 7, 2011, 12:43 PM

    Claims about extraterrestrial biological elements on carbonaceous chondrite meteorites like the Orgueil and Ivuna meteorites (mentioned in this article) have been invalidated several times before, e.g.
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1963.tb13405.x/abstract

    In another case, a seed and coal dust were glued into the Orgueil meteorite. Nobody knows who did this. It may have been aliens!

  • Torbjorn Larsson OM March 7, 2011, 2:36 PM

    Update on UPDATE: International Journal of Astrobiology has commented on NASA Watch:

    “The statement “This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission.”Is not true, The paper was rejected, after peer review. Rocco Mancinelli, Ph.D., Editor, International Journal of Astrobiology.”

    Revise and resubmit for _3_ years?

    1. This is Bad Science. Biology is historically saddled with “confirmation” science. Lately people like Brasier, Wächtershäuser, Murkidjanian and Theobald have pushed for testing. And one can also (re)interpret phylogenies as testing, btw. (Theobald recently tested the LUCA by common ancestry of genetic code and genes to ~ 1:10^2000 “uncertainty”.)

    2. It is a replay of the Schopf-Brasier debate, where Schopf has pushed for similar microfossil patterns and compound analysis for decades and Brasier seems to have won out. Last round in Feb issue of Science, where the Apex Chert “microfossils” were quite clearly found to be mineral – mineral compounds can mimic kerogens in Raman spectroscopy.

    If 3.5 Ga Earth microstructures are not accepted as fossils by biology, what are the chances that 4.5 Ga meteorite such will be?

    3. McKay should consider Redfield’s supplementary view, that the diversity of cells means by itself that pattern matching is too easy. It is a loose-loose method here.

    Finally, not that it matters for the paper content, but I’m curious: what is the latest beef on Hoovers credentials?

    Citing Nancy’s sources: “This NASA MSFC web page from 2007 lists Hoover as having a Bachelor’s degree and working in the Astrobiology Laboratory as a “scientist”. The NASA MSFC Solar Scientists page lists Hoover as “Mr. Richard B. Hoover”. Yet this NASA MSFC web page from 2005 (two years earlier) refers to him as “Dr. Richard Hoover”. Which is it? Usually one gets their B.Sc. degree before their Ph.D. – not the other way around.”

    Has anything new surfaced?

  • wiseman March 7, 2011, 5:56 PM

    Well…I respect very much everybody here but as a science guy (applied science)
    myself, I tend to keep an open mind. I do agree with you all that Dr (or Mr) Hoover,
    has an incredibly big claim to prove but hey, let’s give him the chance to do so.
    Science will follow its course and we’ll see if his hypotheses are substanciated in a
    while (hum…probably a short while!). About panspermia, it does not seem so far
    fetched to me. After all, the universe is astoundingly vast and if you take in consideration the fact that the universe is (perhaps) 3 times older than our solar
    system, lots of things can come in our vicinity (of our planet) during that time.
    The very fact that ALL life on our planet only use four bases (ACGT) to code
    their genetic information is mind bogling to say the least! Chemist can synthesise
    plenty of other nucleic acid but life on earth use only those four!

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM March 12, 2011, 4:29 AM

      The very fact that ALL life on our planet only use four bases (ACGT) to code
      their genetic information is mind bogling

      Not really, since you don’t need more than two complementary bases to make reasonable short codons for a reasonably large set of amino acids. AA tables point out that you have AA of each “type” of chemical properties, if you also discriminate between simple and complex branched/ringed AAs.

      Having 20 AAs means that the 4^3 = 64 combinations of 3 base pairs cover well with redundancies in the 2nd and 3d base pairs (and stop codons). With a single complementary pair you would need 6 base pair codons for the same robustness.

      Also, adenosine (A) is heavily reused in metabolic coenzymes (ATP/ADP/AMP, NADH/NAD and what not.)

  • Paul Eaton-Jones March 8, 2011, 1:31 AM

    How does one become an expert in astro-biology? An expert in astro-physics yes, even astro-chemistry. But astro-biology? We hear about exo-biologists. How is that then. Surely one can only study what ones sees or gets ones hands on. Even thenm it takes years to become an expert. It’s not quite as bad as people who claim to be experts in UFOs, ghosts, psychic phenomena etc. but until we discover evidence of life beyond earth then there is surely no study and definitely no experts.

    • Torbjorn Larsson OM March 12, 2011, 4:32 AM

      No study?

      That is now what the local university says, where I recently took an astrobiology course. Sweden has also SWAN, SWedish Astrobiology Network, which connects astrobiology researchers.

      Earth is an excellent astrobiology case study of an habitable planet, btw. :-D

  • Paul Eaton-Jones March 8, 2011, 1:34 AM

    P.S. I realise that biology will include precursors of life such as molecules which include CHON and varieties of other compounds but the main thrust of the articles which appear here and elsewhere usually mean life as complex as viruses and bacteria.

  • Greg March 8, 2011, 2:03 AM

    Extraordinary claims require extraoridnary evidence. I don’t see it here. I found it amusing that the author makes an attempt to identify the species as cyanobacteria from proported fossil evidence. To prove that you really need some DNA fragments. Nevertheless even if were found it would most likely represent contamination of the object with Earth organisms. Considering what I know about how these chondrites formed in the early solar system, it does not make any sense that bacteria from elsewhere would survive radiation bombardment, heating, cooling and then somehow make it to the surface of forming planet with just the right conditions present to seed it with life. The notion of the early solar system beig riddled with pan-spermic life as this article would imply sounds is quite simply absurd to me.

  • opaltaylor March 12, 2011, 3:57 AM
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