Scientists claim discovery of life coming to Earth from space [UPDATED]

September 20, 2013

SEM of the discovered diatom frustule*

Scientists from the University of Sheffield believe they have found life arriving to Earth from space after sending a balloon 27km into the stratosphere.

After it landed, they discovered that they had captured a diatom fragment and some unusual biological entities from the stratosphere, all of which are too large to have come from Earth, the scientists suggest.

The team was led by Professor (Hon. Cardiff and Buckingham Universities) Milton Wainwright, from the University’s Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.

UPDATE Sept. 21, 2013 1:00 EDT

In a blog post on KurzweilAI, theoretical biologist Dr. Richard Gordon called these conclusions into question, noting that just one broken diatom shell was found (not statistically impressive), no controlled experiment was reported in a dusty environment, collection methods and lab conditions were unspecified, and the study failed to provide data on the condition of the balloon-borne equipment.

He also noted that there is literature on how hurricanes and storms move diatoms through the atmosphere, and that there have been several mechanisms suggested for the transfer of particles to the upper atmosphere. For example, bacteria and other biological materials are common components of cloud condensation nuclei.

UPDATE Sept. 21, 2013 11:56 EDT : The closest-available to “proof” that terrestrial diatoms can reach or exceed 27km altitude is a study by  geologists showing that diatom are similar (in size and velocity) to the fine volcanic glass shards that were dispersed hundreds to thousands of kilometers downwind and are modeled to spread ash at a range of atmospheric heights from ground level to 20–30 km altitude. (Added to Gordon’s blog post.)

Professor Wainwright said: “Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km. The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip.

“In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space, life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here.”

Professor Wainwright said the results could be revolutionary: “If life does continue to arrive from space then we have to completely change our view of biology and evolution,” he added. “New textbooks will have to be written!”

Professor Wainwright said stringent precautions had been taken against the possibility of contamination during sampling and processing, and said the group was confident that the biological organisms could only have come from the stratosphere.

The group’s findings have been published in the Journal of Cosmology (open access) and updated versions will appear in the same journal, a new version of which will be published in the near future. Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe of the Buckingham, University Center for Astrobiology (of which Professor Wainwright is an Honorary Fellow) also gave a presentation of the group’s findings at a meeting of astronomers and astrobiologists in San Diego last month.

Professor Wainwright added: “Of course it will be argued that there must be an, as yet, unknown mechanism for transferring large particles from Earth to the high stratosphere, but we stand by our conclusions. The absolutely crucial experiment will come when we do what is called ‘isotope fractionation’. We will take some of the samples which we have isolated from the stratosphere and introduce them into a complex machine – a button will be pressed. If the ratio of certain isotopes gives one number then our organisms are from Earth, if it gives another, then they are from space. The tension will obviously be almost impossible to live with!”

The research was conducted by Professor (Hon. Cardiff and Buckingham Universities) Milton Wainwright from the University of Sheffield, Chris Rose and Alex Baker from the University of Sheffield’s Leonardo Centre for Tribology and Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe Director of the Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham.

* Image credit: credit: Milton Wainwright et al./Journal of Cosmology)