The idea of panspermia — that life on Earth originated from comets or asteroids bombarding our planet — is not new. But new research may have given the theory a boost. Scientists from Japan say their experiments show that early comet impacts could have caused amino acids to change into peptides, becoming the first building blocks of life. Not only would this help explain the genesis of life on Earth, but it could also have implications for life on other worlds.
Dr. Haruna Sugahara, from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokahama, and Dr. Koichi Mimura, from Nagoya University said they conducted “shock experiments on frozen mixtures of amino acid, water ice and silicate (forsterite) at cryogenic condition (77 K),” according to their paper. “In the experiments, the frozen amino acid mixture was sealed into a capsule … a vertical propellant gun was used to [simulate] impact shock.”
They analyzed the post-impact mixture with gas chromatography, and found that some of the amino acids had joined into short peptides of up to 3 units long (tripeptides).
Based on the experimental data, the researchers were able to estimate that the amount of peptides produced would be around the same as had been thought to be produced by normal terrestrial processes (such as lighting storms or hydration and dehydration cycles).
“This finding indicates that comet impacts almost certainly played an important role in delivering the seeds of life to the early Earth,” said Sugahara. “It also opens the likelihood that we will have seen similar chemical evolution in other extraterrestrial bodies, starting with cometary-derived peptides.”
The earliest known fossils on Earth are from about 3.5 billion years ago and there is evidence that biological activity took place even earlier. But there’s evidence that early Earth had little water and carbon-based molecules on the Earth’s surface, so how could these building blocks of life delivered to the Earth’s surface so quickly? This was also about the time of the Late Heavy Bombardment, and so the obvious answer could be the collision of comets and asteroids with the Earth, since these objects contain abundant supplies of both water and carbon-based molecules.
Space missions to comets are helping to confirm this possibility. The 2004 Stardust mission found the amino acid when it collected particles from Comet Wild 2. When NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft crashed into Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, it discovered a mixture of organic and clay particles inside the comet. One theory about the origins of life is that clay particles act as a catalyst, allowing simple organic molecules to get arranged into more and more complex structures.
The news from the current Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko also indicates that comets are a rich source of materials, and more discoveries are likely to be forthcoming from that mission.
“Two key parts to this story are how complex molecules are initially generated on comets and then how they survive/evolve when the comet hits a planet like the Earth,” said Professor Mark Burchell from the University of Kent in the UK, commenting on the new research from Japan. “Both of these steps can involve shocks which deliver energy to the icy body… building on earlier work, Dr. Sugahara and Dr. Mimura have shown how amino acids on icy bodies can be turned into short peptide sequences, another key step along the path to life.”
“Comet impacts are normally associated with mass extinction on Earth, but this works shows that they probably helped kick-start the whole process of life in the first place,” said Sugahara. “The production of short peptides is the key step in the chemical evolution of complex molecules. Once the process is kick-started, then much less energy is needed to make longer chain peptides in a terrestrial, aquatic environment.”
The scientists also indicated that similar “kickstarting” could have happened in other places in our Solar System, such as on the icy moons Europa and Enceladus, as they likely underwent a similar comet bombardment.
Back in 1988, astronomer Jack Hills predicted a type of “rogue”star might exist that is not bound to any particular galaxy. These stars, he reasoned, were periodically ejected from their host galaxy by some sort of mechanism to begin traveling through interstellar space.
Since that time, astronomers have made numerous discoveries that indicate these rogue, traveling stars indeed do exist, and far from being an occasional phenomenon, they are actually quite common. What’s more, some of these stars were found to be traveling at extremely high speeds, leading to the designation of hypervelocity stars (HVS).
And now, in a series of papers that published in arXiv Astrophysics, two Harvard researchers have argued that some of these stars may be traveling close to the speed of light. Known as semi-relativistic hypervelocity stars (SHS), these fast-movers are apparently caused by galactic mergers, where the gravitational effect is so strong that it fling stars out of a galaxy entirely. These stars, the researchers say, may have the potential to spread life throughout the Universe.
This finding comes on the heels of two other major announcements. The first occurred in early November when a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal reported that as many as 200 billion rogue stars have been detected in a cluster of galaxies some 4 billion light years away. These observations were made by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Frontier Fields program, which made ultra-deep multiwavelength observations of the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster.
This was followed by a study published in Science, where an international team of astronomers claimed that as many as half the stars in the entire universe live outside of galaxies.
However, the recent observations made by Abraham Loeb and James Guillochon of Harvard University are arguably the most significant yet concerning these rogue celestial bodies. According to their research papers, these stars may also play a role in spreading life beyond the boundaries of their host galaxies.
In their first paper, the researchers trace these stars to galaxy mergers, which presumably lead to the formation of massive black hole binaries in their centers. According to their calculations, these supermassive black holes (SMBH) will occasionally slingshot stars to semi-relativistic speeds.
“We predict the existence of a new population of stars coasting through the Universe at nearly the speed of light,” Loeb told Universe Today via email. “The stars are ejected by slingshots made of pairs of massive black holes which form during mergers of galaxies.”
These findings have further reinforced that massive compact bodies, widely known as a supermassive black holes (SMBH), exist at the center of galaxies. Here, the fastest known stars exist, orbiting the SMBH and accelerating up to speeds of 10,000 km per second (3 percent the speed of light).
According to Leob and Guillochon, however, those that are ejected as a result of galactic mergers are accelerated to anywhere from one-tenth to one-third the speed of light (roughly 30,000 – 100,000 km per second).
Observing these semi-relativistic stars could tell us much about the distant cosmos, according to the Harvard researchers. Compared to conventional research, which relied on subatomic particles like photons, neutrinos, and cosmic rays from distant galaxies, studying ejected stars offers numerous advantages.
“Traditionally, cosmologists used light to study the Universe but objects moving less than the speed of light offer new possibilities,” said Loeb. “For example, stars moving at different speeds allow us to probe a distant source galaxy at different look-back times (since they must have been ejected at different times in order to reach us today), in difference from photons that give us just one snapshot of the galaxy.”
In their second paper, the researchers calculate that there are roughly a trillion of these stars out there to be studied. And given that these stars were detected thanks to the Spitzer Space Telescope, it is likely that future generations will be able to study them using more advanced equipment.
All-sky infrared surveys could locate thousands of these stars speeding through the cosmos. And spectrographic analysis could tell us much about the galaxies they came from.
But how could these fast moving stars be capable of spreading life throughout the cosmos?
“Tightly bound planets can join the stars for the ride,” said Loeb. “The fastest stars traverse billions of light years through the universe, offering a thrilling cosmic journey for extra-terrestrial civilizations. In the past, astronomers considered the possibility of transferring life between planets within the solar system and maybe through our Milky Way galaxy. But this newly predicted population of stars can transport life between galaxies across the entire universe.”
The possibility that traveling stars and planets could have been responsible for the spread of life throughout the universe is likely to have implications as a potential addition to the Theory of Panspermia, which states that life exists throughout the universe and is spread by meteorites, comets, asteroids.
But Loeb told Universe Today that a traveling planetary system could have potential uses for our species someday.
“Our descendants might contemplate boarding a related planetary system once the Milky Way will merge with its sister galaxy, Andromeda, in a few billion years,” he said.
Are Earthlings really Martians ?
Did life arise on Mars first and then journey on rocks to our planet and populate Earth billions of years ago? Earth and Mars are compared in size as they look today. NASA’s upcoming MAVEN Mars orbiter is aimed at answering key questions related to the habitability of Mars, its ancient atmosphere and where did all the water go. Story updated[/caption]
That’s the controversial theory proposed today (Aug. 29) by respected American chemist Professor Steven Benner during a presentation at the annual Goldschmidt Conference of geochemists being held in Florence, Italy. It’s based on new evidence uncovered by his research team and is sure to spark heated debate on the origin of life question.
Benner said the new scientific evidence “supports the long-debated theory that life on Earth may have started on Mars,” in a statement. Universe Today contacted Benner for further details and enlightenment.
“We have chemistry that (at least at the level of hypothesis) makes RNA prebiotically,” Benner told Universe Today. “AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars.” Benner said he has experimental data as well.
First- How did ancient Mars life, if it ever even existed, reach Earth?
On rocks violently flung up from the Red Planet’s surface during mammoth collisions with asteroids or comets that then traveled millions of miles (kilometers) across interplanetary space to Earth – melting, heating and exploding violently before the remnants crashed into the solid or liquid surface.
“The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock,” says Benner, of The Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida. That theory is generally known as panspermia.
To date, about 120 Martian meteorites have been discovered on Earth.
And Benner explained that one needs to distinguish between habitability and the origin of life.
“The distinction is being made between habitability (where can life live) and origins (where might life have originated).”
NASA’s new Curiosity Mars rover was expressly dispatched to search for environmental conditions favorable to life and has already discovered a habitable zone on the Red Planet’s surface rocks barely half a year after touchdown inside Gale Crater.
Furthermore, NASA’s next Mars orbiter- named MAVEN – launches later this year and seeks to determine when Mars lost its atmosphere and water- key questions in the Origin of Life debate.
Of course the proposed chemistry leading to life is exceedingly complex and life has never been created from non-life in the lab.
The key new points here are that Benner believes the origin of life involves “deserts” and oxidized forms of the elements Boron (B) and Molybdenum (Mo), namely “borate and molybdate,” Benner told me.
“Life originated some 4 billion years ago ± 0.5 billon,” Benner stated.
He says that there are two paradoxes which make it difficult for scientists to understand how life could have started on Earth – involving organic tars and water.
Life as we know it is based on organic molecules, the chemistry of carbon and its compounds.
But just discovering the presence of organic compounds is not the equivalent of finding life. Nor is it sufficient for the creation of life.
And simply mixing organic compounds aimlessly in the lab and heating them leads to globs of useless tars, as every organic chemist and lab student knows.
Benner dubs that the ‘tar paradox’.
Although Curiosity has not yet discovered organic molecules on Mars, she is now speeding towards a towering 3 mile (5 km) high Martian mountain known as Mount Sharp.
Upon arrival sometime next spring or summer, scientists will target the state of the art robot to investigate the lower sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp in search of clues to habitability and preserved organics that could shed light on the origin of life question and the presence of borates and molybdates.
It’s clear that many different catalysts were required for the origin of life. How much and their identity is a big part of Benner’s research focus.
“Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn into tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting,” says Benner in a statement. “Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidized form of molybdenum was there too.”
The second paradox relates to water. He says that there was too much water covering the early Earth’s surface, thereby causing a struggle for life to survive. Not exactly the conventional wisdom.
“Not only would this have prevented sufficient concentrations of boron forming – it’s currently only found in very dry places like Death Valley – but water is corrosive to RNA, which scientists believe was the first genetic molecule to appear. Although there was water on Mars, it covered much smaller areas than on early Earth.”
I asked Benner to add some context on the beneficial effects of deserts and oxidized boron and molybdenum.
“We have chemistry that (at least at the level of hypothesis) makes RNA prebiotically,” Benner explained to Universe Today.
“We require mineral species like borate (to capture organic species before they devolve to tar), molybdate (to arrange that material to give ribose), and deserts (to dry things out, to avoid the water problem).”
“Various geologists will not let us have these [borates and molybdates] on early Earth, but they will let us have them on Mars.”
“So IF you believe what the geologists are telling you about the structure of early Earth, AND you think that you need our chemistry to get RNA, AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars,” Benner elaborated.
“The assembly of RNA building blocks is thermodynamically disfavored in water. We want a desert to get rid of the water intermittently.”
I asked Benner whether his lab has run experiments in support of his hypothesis and how much borate and molybdate are required.
“Yes, we have run many lab experiments. The borate is stoichiometric [meaning roughly equivalent to organics on a molar basis]; The molybdate is catalytic,” Benner responded.
“And borate has now been found in meteorites from Mars, that was reported about three months ago.
At his talk, Benner outlined some of the chemical reactions involved.
Although some scientists have invoked water, minerals and organics brought to ancient Earth by comets as a potential pathway to the origin of life, Benner thinks differently about the role of comets.
“Not comets, because comets do not have deserts, borate and molybdate,” Benner told Universe Today.
Benner has developed a logic tree outlining his proposal that life on Earth may have started on Mars.
“It explains how you get to the conclusion that life originated on Mars. As you can see from the tree, you can escape that conclusion by diverging from the logic path.”
Finally, Benner is not one who blindly accepts controversial proposals himself.
He was an early skeptic of the claims concerning arsenic based life announced a few years back at a NASA sponsored press conference, and also of the claims of Mars life discovered in the famous Mars meteorite known as ALH 84001.
“I am afraid that what we thought were fossils in ALH 84001 are not.”
The debate on whether Earthlings are really Martians will continue as science research progresses and until definitive proof is discovered and accepted by a consensus of the science community of Earthlings – whatever our origin.
On Nov. 18, NASA will launch its next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter. Its aimed at studying the upper Martian atmosphere for the first time.
“MAVENS’s goal is determining the composition of the ancient Martian atmosphere and when it was lost, where did all the water go and how and when was it lost,” said Bruce Jakosky to Universe Today at a MAVEN conference at the University of Colorado- Boulder. Jakosky, of CU-Boulder, is the MAVEN Principal Investigator.
MAVEN will shed light on the habitability of Mars billions of years ago and provide insight on the origin of life questions and chemistry raised by Benner and others.
The concept of nomad planets has been featured before here on Universe Today, and for good reason. Not only is the idea of mysterious lone planets drifting sunless through interstellar space an intriguing one, but also the sheer potential quantity of such worlds is simply staggering. If some very well-respected scientists’ calculations are correct there are more nomad planets in our Milky Way galaxy than there are stars — a lot more. With estimates up to 100,000 nomad planets for every star in the galaxy, there could be literally quadrillions of wandering worlds out there, ranging in size from Pluto-sized to even larger than Jupiter.
That’s a lot of nomads. But where did they all come from?
One potential source for nomad planets is forceful ejection from solar systems.
“Most stars form in clusters, and around many stars there are protoplanetary disks of gas and dust in which planets form and then potentially get ejected in various ways,” said Strigari. “If these early-forming solar systems have a large number of planets down to the mass of Pluto, you can imagine that exchanges could be frequent.”
And the possibility of planetary formation outside of stellar disks is not entirely ruled out by the researchers — although they do impose a lower limit to the size of such worlds.
“Theoretical calculations say that probably the lowest-mass nomad planet that can form by that process is something around the mass of Jupiter,” said Strigari. “So we don’t expect that planets smaller than that are going to form independent of a developing solar system.”
“This is the big mystery that surrounds this new paper. How do these smaller nomad planets form?” Sasselov added.
Of course, without a sun of their own to supply heat and energy one might assume such worlds would be cold and inhospitable to life. But, as the researchers point out, that may not always be the case. A nomad planet’s internal heat could supply the necessary energy to fuel the emergence of life… or at least keep it going.
“If you imagine the Earth as it is today becoming a nomad planet… life on Earth is not going to cease,” said Sasselov. “That we know. It’s not even speculation at this point. …scientists already have identified a large number of microbes and even two types of nematodes that survive entirely on the heat that comes from inside the Earth.”
Researcher Roger Blandford also suggested that “small nomad planets could retain very dense, high-pressure ‘blankets’ around them. These could conceivably include molecular hydrogen atmospheres or possibly surface ice that would trap a lot of heat. They might be able to keep water liquid, which would be conducive to creating or sustaining life.”
And so with all these potentially life-sustaining planets knocking about the galaxy, is it possible that they could have helped transport organisms from one solar system to another? It’s a concept called panspermia, and it’s been around since at least the 5th century BCE when the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first wrote about it. (We’ve written about it too, as recently as three weeks ago, and it’s still a much-debated topic.)
“In the 20th century, many eminent scientists have entertained the speculation that life propagated either in a directed, random or malicious way throughout the galaxy,” said Blandford. “One thing that I think modern astronomy might add to that is clear evidence that many galaxies collide and spray material out into intergalactic space. So life can propagate between galaxies too, in principle.
“And so it’s a very old speculation, but it’s a perfectly reasonable idea and one that is becoming more accessible to scientific investigation.”
Nomad planets may not even be limited to the confines of the Milky Way. Given enough of a push, they could be sent out of the galaxy entirely.
“Just a stellar or black hole encounter within the galaxy can, in principle, give a planet the escape velocity it needs to be ejected from the galaxy. If you look at galaxies at large, collisions between them leads a lot of material being cast out into intergalactic space,” Blandford said.
The discussion is a fascinating one and can be found in its entirety on The Kavli Foundation’s site here, and watch a recorded interview between Louis Strigari and journalist Bruce Lieberman here.
The Kavli Foundation, based in Oxnard, California, is dedicated to the goals of advancing science for the benefit of humanity and promoting increased public understanding and support for scientists and their work.
Free-floating “rogue” planets may occasionally dip into the inner Solar System, picking up dust containing organic compounds — a.k.a. the ingredients for life — and carry it back out into the galaxy, according to new research by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director of the University of Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology in the UK.
Rogue planets are thus called because they are not in orbit around a star. Either forcibly ejected from a solar system or having formed very early on in the Universe — even within a few million years after the Big Bang, the team proposes — these vagrant worlds may vastly outnumber stars. In fact, it’s been suggested there are as much as 100,000 times more rogue planets than stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone!
Professor Wickramasinghe — a proponent of the panspermia hypothesis whereby the ingredients for life can be transported throughout the galaxy on dust, comets, and perhaps even planets — and his team have suggested in a paper published in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science that Earth-sized rogue planets could pass through the inner Solar System, possibly as often as once every 25 million years on average. Like a cosmic drive-thru these planets could gather zodiacal dust from the plane of the Solar System during their pass, thus picking up organic compounds along the way.
The planets would then take the material gathered from one solar system and possibly bring it into another, serving as a type of interstellar cross-pollinator.
Wickramasinghe’s team propose that, by this process, there could be more life-bearing, Earth-sized planets existing between the stars than orbiting around them — a lot more. Based on their estimates there may be as much as a few hundred thousand billion such worlds in our galaxy… that’s several thousand for every star.
It will be interesting to see how this idea is received, but it definitely is an intriguing concept. As we hunt for the “Holy Grail” of life-friendly exoplanets around other stars, they may be drifting through the darkness in number, hiding in the spaces between.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of panspermia – where living organisms can be “seeded” from comet or asteroid impacts – but where does the life-giving content come from? According to a research group led by Mauricio Reyes-Ruiz from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, it just might come from Earth.
Inspired by the discovery of Moon and Mars rocks found on Earth from meteor strikes, the team began computer modeling of what might happen if pieces of Earth were transported across the Solar System via a collision scenario. The simulation involved 10,000 Earth particles moving over a period of 30,000 years. The amount of matter is tiny compared to the bulk our planet and it’s a blink of the eye in cosmic time, but scientists theorize that extreme lifeforms might be able to exist that long in space.
“The collision probability is greater than previously reported,” said Reyes-Ruiz. “It has been suggested that the ejection to interplanetary space of terrestrial crustal material, accelerated in a large impact, may result in the interchange of biological material between Earth and other Solar System bodies”
Could pieces of Earth really reach other planets? According to older theories, chances were good that some might reach the Moon or Venus, but gravity from the Sun and Earth makes reaching Mars improbable. However, the new simulations show a Mars impact – and even Jupiter – to be probable with the right ejection speeds. By involving slightly more particles at five times the rate of motion, the new results show the particles could even go beyond the Solar System. Oddly enough, the faster they moved, the lesser their chances of encountering the Moon and Venus became. Of the 10,242 tested, 691 particles ‘escaped’ out of the Solar System entirely, and six landed on Jupiter itself. Is this a Neil Young vision of flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home?
Chris Shepherd of the Institute of Physics in London, who was not involved in the study, might agree with this conclusion. “This is an intriguing piece of work. The team have mapped out a really interesting scenario,” he said. One possible collision zone is Europa, the moon of Jupiter, and while the team did not simulate the number of particles that would specifically land there, many astronomers believe that it contains a large ocean, and could therefore support life.”
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.
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.
The idea that a tiny organism could hitchhike aboard a mote of space dust and cross vast stretches of space and time until it landed and took up residence on the early Earth does seem a bit implausible. More likely any such organisms would have been long dead by the time they reached Earth. But… might those long dead alien carcasses still have provided the genomic template that kick started life on Earth? Welcome to necropanspermia.
Panspermia, the theory that life originated somewhere else in the universe and was then transported to Earth requires some consideration of where that somewhere else might be. As far as the solar system is concerned – the most likely candidate site for the spontaneous formation of a water-solvent carbon-based replicator is… well, Earth. And, since all the planets are of a similar age, the only obvious reason to appeal to the notion that life must have spontaneously formed somewhere else, is if a much longer time span than was available in the early solar system is required.
Opinions vary, but Earth may have offered a reasonably stable and watery environment from about 4.3 billion years until 3.8 billion years ago – which is about when the first evidence of life becomes apparent in the fossil record. This represents a good half billion years for some kind of primitive chemical replicator to evolve into a self-contained microorganism capable of metabolic energy production and capable of building another self-contained microorganism.
Half a billion years sounds like a generous amount of time – although with only one example to go by, who knows what a generous amount of time really is. Wesson (below) argues that it is not enough time – referring to other researchers who calculate that random molecular interactions over half a billion years would only produce about 194 bits of information – while a typical virus genome carries 120,000 bits – and an E. coli bacterial genome carries about 6 million bits.
A counter argument to this is that any level of replication in a environment with limited raw materials favors those entities that are most efficient at replication – and continues to do so generation after generation – which means it very quickly ceases to be an environment of random molecular interactions.
The mechanism through which a dead alien genome usefully became the information template for further organic replication on Earth is not described in detail and the case for necropanspermia is not immediately compelling.
The theory still requires that the early Earth was ideally primed and ripe for seeding – with a gently warmed cocktail of organic compounds, shaken-but-not-stirred, beneath a protective atmosphere and a magnetosphere. Under these circumstances, the establishment of a primeval replicator through a fortuitous conjunction of organic compounds remains quite plausible. It is not clear that we need to appeal to the arrival of a dead interstellar virus to kick start the world as we know it.