Bacteria from Outer Space?
Cow Disease continues to panic Europe. Several countries including
England, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland and The
Netherlands have all reported the fatal disease. The European
Union's agricultural minister told reporters, "Mad cow disease
knows no borders, but is moving from one member state to another."
This week, a German public information hot line crashed from overload.
Poland has banned beef from neighboring European countries; and
Croatia, Estonia and Latvia have banned German and Spanish beef
for at least five years. Beef wholesalers from Spain to Germany
have seen their meat sales drop 50%. In Athens, Greece, butchers
threatened to close until the government could assure safe meat
products. In Italy, celebrities are giving vegetarian recipes
The New York Times quoted one Italian butcher as saying, "It's
as if we were suddenly facing bubonic plague. Is it the cows?
Or have we gone mad?" The public has a right to be concerned.
Not only does the disease microbe called a prion make holes in
brain tissue and cause general physical and mental deterioration
and ultimately death, but a similar prion has been detected in
humans with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Prions are the smallest
infectious agents known and are puzzling because they are 100%
protein and do not have nucleic acids considered necessary for
reproduction in all life forms. So, what exactly are prions? And
where did they come from?
scientists think prions and some destructive viruses and bacteria
have hitchhiked to earth from comet debris. Famous astrophysicist
Fred Hoyle and Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe in Britain have hypothesized
that cyclic pandemics of disease, including flus, which have periodically
swept the earth might be directly linked to organisms from the
cosmos. Going even further, Professors Hoyle and Wickramasinghe
have argued there is high probability that living microorganisms
were brought to earth by comets long ago at the birth of the solar
system. That concept of extraterrestrial life seeding is known
as "panspermia," an idea that emerged in the 19th Century.
the past two weeks, Dr. Wickramasinghe established a new Center
for Astrobiology at Cardiff University in Wales and was quoted
by a reporter at The Daily Mail as saying "a tiny form of primitive
alien life," has been discovered in the earth's upper atmosphere.
According to the story, the Indian Space Research Organization
released a balloon to an altitude of ten miles to collect atmospheric
samples to look for organisms. Dr. Wickramasinghe allegedly told
The Daily Mail: "This is the first time we have direct evidence
for the hypothesis that comets seed life on other planets" and
that there is a "hitherto unknown strain of bacteria" now being
studied, a bacteria "different from anything we have seen before."
December 2, I reached Dr. Wickramasinghe by phone at his Cardiff
office to discuss The Daily Mail news story.
Wickramasinghe, Ph.D., Professor of Applied Math and Astronomy
and Director, Cardiff Center for Astrobiology, Cardiff, England:
"What happened, I should make
it quite clear, is there was an inadvertent leak of this information
from the Indian Space Research Organization and when that happened
it sort of got around to various places and press agencies and the
obvious people who wanted to talk about it was myself and my colleague,
Sir Fred Hoyle. I kept referring the reporters back to India, but
either they did not get much luck from them or they decided they
wanted to have a quick response from Fred Hoyle or myself.
DID YOU SAY, AS QUOTED IN THE NEWSPAPER, THAT THIS IS A 'HITHERTO
UNKNOWN STRAIN . . . SO DIFFERENT FROM ANYTHING ELSE WE HAVE SEEN
is the impression I was given by my collaborators in India. They
still have not come out in public to make the announcement.
THEY STUDYING THIS BACTERIA STRAIN WITH DNA ANALYSIS? IS THAT WHAT
IS BEHIND THESE STATEMENTS?
are studying with the fullest range of biochemical and microbiology
techniques that are available. The institution that is handling
this is some of the best in the world and certainly the very best
in India in Hiderabad, the center for cellular and molecular biology.
ISN'T THERE AN IMPLICATION HERE THAT IF THOSE SCIENTISTS OR ANYONE
ENDS UP WITH A STRAIN OF BACTERIA UNLIKE ANYTHING ON THE EARTH THAT
THERE COULD BE HUGE MEDICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR SOMETHING THAT COULD
CAUSE A LOT OF PROBLEMS WITH THE HEALTH OF ANIMALS, PLANTS OR HUMANS?
think that is inevitably the case and myself and my colleague, Fred
Hoyle, has written about this for over a couple of decades now.
We think many of the diseases of plants and animals, many of the
epidemics that have punctuated human history over the centuries,
has to be understood in terms of continuing input by micro-organisms
from outside. Most of the time, these micro-organisms that are coming
from space on comets would be harmless. They wouldn't do very much.
They would just lay on the surface water and surface soil and would
not get incorporated into astrobiology in any way. But.
YOU SAY YOU ARE FINDING THESE STRAINS OF BACTERIA BY HIGH FLYING
BALLOONS AND THAT MEANS THEY ARE UP IN THE UPPER ATMOSPHERE.
think that is the implication of the work that's being leaked.
IF THIS BACTERIA IS A HITHERTO UNKNOWN STRAIN SO DIFFERENT FROM
ANYTHING THAT ANYONE HAS SEEN BEFORE, HOW IS THE INDIAN SPACE RESEARCH
ORGANIZATION WORKING WITH IT? WHAT PRECAUTIONS ARE THEY TAKING?
think I have to refer back to the people doing it. There are obviously
high containment facilities everywhere.
IF THERE IS THE HYPOTHESIS OF PANDEMICS ON THE PLANET, OR UNUSUAL
DISEASES COULD BE ATTRIBUTED TO BACTERIA OR PRIONS EVEN - LIKE THE
PRIONS ASSOCIATED WITH MAD COW DISEASE?
THEY HAVE BEEN INTRODUCED TO THE EARTH BY SOME PASSING COMET?
think that is very likely proposition. I think it's more than a
likelihood. Given the fact that comets are full of organic material
and organic material of great complexity... only about 6 months
ago, there was a report that there were five interstellar dust particles
that were observed by the Stardust Mission - a spacecraft searching
towards the comet for rendezvous in 2004. It's a little way off
for the rendezvous, but already they have analyzed 5 interstellar
dust particles and found that the chemical structures of these particles
are of a kind that would be fully consistent with bacterial material.
And there is other evidence as well, so one cannot get away from
the fact that you could get structures such as prions, structures
that are biological, maybe DNA, abundantly present in comets. And
comets deposit this stuff in the upper atmosphere. And it rains
down on the surface of the earth. And as I said, hundreds of thousands
of bacterial material could be falling over the surface of the earth,
per square meter of the surface of the earth, every single day.
And that's a huge amount.
SPECIFICALLY IS DOING THE RESEARCH ON THIS UNIDENTIFIED STRAIN OF
a group of biologists at that center of Indian Space Research Organization.
They are the people who are supporting it. It is their facility
involved in sending the balloons into the upper atmosphere. But
the actual biological analyses is being done at the Center for Cellular
and Molecular Biology in Hiderabad.
WHEN DO THEY EXPECT TO MAKE A FORMAL RELEASE ABOUT THE DATA?
are publications they are trying to get into, journals, and that
is the reason for holding back. They want to get it accepted in
a peer-reviewed journal before they make a formal announcement.
HAVE THE INDIAN RESEARCH ORGANIZATION
SCIENTISTS IN THEIR DISCUSSION WITH YOU INDICATED WHAT SPECIFICALLY
IS SO DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS BACTERIA COMPARED TO KNOWN EARTH BACTERIA?
IS IT BECAUSE THEY ARE LOOKING AT THE GENOME SEQUENCING?
certainly are, I have access to that material in Cardiff and that
is being considered at the moment - full bacterial genome map is
what is needed, but it hasn't been done yet.
IF THEY ARE TRYING TO BE PUBLISHED IN PEER REVIEWED JOURNALS, IT
MEANS THEY MUST HAVE ENOUGH DATA TO SUBSTANTIATE.
yes. They have enough data and that is the reason for the leak and
for my possibly making untimely comments on it. I personally was
so excited by the discovery that when someone asked me if it was
true, the rumor that was going around, I couldn't resist saying
there is truth in it."
© 2001 Linda Moulton Howe All Rights Reserved. Republication and
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