Astronomy Without A Telescope – Necropanspermia

Exogenesis

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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.

Put the term panspermia in a search engineand you get (left) ALH84001, a meteorite from Mars which has some funny looking structures which may just be mineral deposits; and (right) a tardigrade - a totally terrestrial organism that can endure high levels of radiation, desiccation and near vacuum conditions - although it much prefers to live in wet moss. Credit: NASA

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.

Further reading: Wesson, P. Panspermia, past and present: Astrophysical and Biophysical Conditions for the Dissemination of Life in Space.