Recently, the news media rushed to report on a NASA press conference that too many people yawned over. For the implications of what NASA discovered is monumental and will certainly change some of the science textbooks as well as the search for life in the solar system and beyond.
Yet, the discovery the space agency made may actually be bigger than NASA itself realizes. The arsenic laden lifeforms scooped up at Mono Lake, California may not be Earth life that adapted to a toxic environment, but actually alien life that fell onto Earth from outer space.
It’s assumed that the arsenic-based strain evolved naturally because a laboratory experiment showed that phosphorous replacement with arsenic can take place. The discovery at Mono Lake is believed to be the same process as the water and soil have been heavily polluted with arsenic from years of mining operations.
So, it’s thought that the microbe mimicked the laboratory process. But what if it didn’t?
Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow who made the discovery, is quoted as saying, “We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new—building parts of itself out of arsenic. If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”
Well yes, a microbe adapting itself that way is stunning and lends credence to the hypothesis kicked around scientific circles for years that other forms of life including silicon-based life could be flourishing all through the universe as well as the carbon-based life we’re familiar with here on Earth.
But still there is that theory out there—called the panspermia theory—that has credibility and evidence to support it. The panspermia theory allows for the possibility that the Mono Lake microbes are not of this Earth.
The mystery of strain GFAJ-1 [Photo]
Although the new mutated microbe—strain GFAJ-1—is indeed a member of bacteria already on Earth called Gammaproteobacteria, that doesn’t preclude the possibility the common bacteria already seeded the Earth thousands, even millions of years ago.
The GFAJ-1 strain already used arsenic in place of phosphorous to help carry the genetic makeup of the organism’s RNA and DNA. Whether it evolved naturally through the process of natural selection, or drifted uncounted eons in interstellar space before finding a friendly environment at Mono Lake is an unknown.
When the NASA research team fed the microbe more arsenic it resulted with the arsenic being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.
Lithopanspermia and the Mono Lake microbes
Three categories of panspermia may exist: ballistic, directed and lithopanspermia.
Ballistic panspermia will occur when an impact even on the surface of another planet kicks up rock and eventually deposits it onto the surface of another world in the same solar system-along with any biological material that may be in the rock.
Lithopanspermia is similar to ballistic, but the biological material is spread from one solar system to other systems.
The final type, directed panspermia, covers the intentional seeding of microbiological life to other worlds by either human intention or advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. In that regards they’d be acting as “Johnny Appleseeds” from the stars.
As far back as 1743 Benoît de Maillet, a French nobleman and natural historian mused that all life on Earth may have been seeded by germs from space falling into the world’s waterways. This was the first known break with the more widely held theory of abiogenesis,
The idea was debated, but found difficult to prove or disprove.
By the 19th Century the cause for panspermia was championed by a triad of brilliant scientists: Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779–1848), Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) (1824–1907) and Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894). Intense debate raged throughout Europe on the validity—or lack therof—of the daring hypothesis that panspermia was the root cause of all life on Earth.
“[W]e must regard it as probable in the highest degree that there are countless seed-bearing meteoric stones moving about through space. If at the present instance no life existed upon this Earth, one such stone falling upon it might, by what we blindly call natural causes, lead to its becoming covered with vegetation,” Lord Kelvin asserted during a written response to critics during 1871.
Then, during the 1970s a new canine disease—canine parovovirus—suddenly erupted around the world. Although accounts now claim it took two years to travel about the globe, veterinary doctors at the time were stunned because a totally new virus suddenly appeared worldwide within a matter of days.
Some microbiologists at the time claimed the outbreak was strong proof of panspermia.
During the 1970s a new canine disease—canine parvovirus—suddenly erupted around the world. Although accounts now claim it took two years to travel about the globe, veterinary doctors at the time were stunned because a totally new virus suddenly appeared worldwide within a matter of days. Some microbiologists at the time claimed the outbreak was strong proof of panspermia.
Professor Francis Crick Nobel prize-winning British molecular biologist (with colleague British chemist Leslie Orgel), suggested the possibility of directed panspermia. This started a fresh debate in 1973.
Then a breakthrough!
A group of scientists made a momentous discovery while on a 1984 U.S. government-funded exploration to search for meteors on the Antarctic ice sheet. They found a meteoric rock shot from the surface Mars by a huge impact about 15 million years ago. The meteorite sat on a shelf in a research lab for years until, during 1996, the rock labeled “ALH84001” was discovered to possess tiny fossilized structures that may well be the remains of Martian nanobacteria.
University of Naples researchers broke the news during May of 2001 that extraterrestrial bacteria had been found inside a meteorite gauged to be more than 4.5 billion years old. Geologist Bruno D’Argenio and molecular biologist Giuseppe Geraci claimed the bacteria they found inside some crystalline structures survived both the transition through the atmosphere and impact. Both were adamant the lifeform had DNA unlike any found on Earth, although the bacteria was very similar to Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus pumilus bacteria. The new bacteria was a completely different strain.
While the papers in Europe ran headlines about the discovery, NASA basically ignored it.
World renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking also believes the possibility that alien life can be spread through panspermia. He thinks it likely that life in the form of DNA particles can be transmitted through space to habitable places.
Astronaut Pete Conrad’s testimony
Panspermia relies on the ability of bacteria and viruses to survive the cold vacuum of space for interminable periods of time. These tiny lifeforms can accomplish that by forming thick, resistant shields—called endospores—around themselves that insulate them from hostile environments.
Thus shielded the lifeforms can survive long stretches of time without food, heat, even air. When the environment returns to one in which they can survive, they emerge from their dormancy.
Pete Conrad, one of the astronauts on the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission, retrieved a small lunar lander that had been sent to the Moon years earlier. He was able to locate it during one of his EVAs.
Back on Earth, scientists examined the lander and discovered bacteria on it that had survived the harsh environment of the lunar surface for many years.
“I always thought the most significant thing we found on the moon was that little bacteria who came back and lived and nobody ever said [anything] about it,” Conrad observed.
If strain GFAJ-1 is the result of panspermia, trillions of the microbes could have drifted down on Earth. All would have died except those that happened to settle in the region near the lake. There, the little ET’s would have found a friendly environment—arsenic rich—and gobbled away merrily, growing and reproducing.
And perhaps the most significant thing NASA found at Mono Lake was exactly that: extraterrestrial life…not an evolved terrestrial mutation.
“Discovery of ‘Arsenic-bug’ Expands Definition of Life,” NASA Science News