Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The High Life

Via Universe Today, a report that Indian scientists have used a high-altitude balloon to send a sampling package into the stratosphere, and retrieved samples of live fungi and bacteria, including three previously unknown species of bacteria with higher than usual resistance to UV. Claims are being made that this is proof of the Hoyle/Wickramasinghe panspermia theory - that bacteria raining down from space seeded Earth with life. After all, these bacteria are unusual, and they were found in a region of the Earth's atmosphere that's not only next door to space, but also doesn't usually mix with lower layers where life might be expected to be found because it's sealed off by the topopause. Are these examples of Paul Davies' 'shadow life'?

Anyone who remembers claims that Martian bacteria were found in a meteorite retrieved from the Antarctic icesheet will know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Panspermia theories have gained respectability in recent years, but there's still no hard evidence for them - and the evidence needs to be diamond-hard. This isn't. Claims like this have been made before, and are still being debated (bacteria could reach the stratosphere when volcanoes loft dust into it, for instance). But it is very interesting. What are all those species of fungi and bacteria doing, way up high, at the edge of space? Are they active and continually present, or temporary visitors? Is there an ecosystem we don't know about?

EDIT: Just remembered that Robert Heinlein wrote a short story ('Goldfish Bowl') about giant insubstantial inhabitants of the stratosphere that were far in advance of human beings. Maybe those scientists should be a bit more careful when they're poking around up there.


Blogger PeteY said...

It wouldn't be the first time Wickramasinghe and his mates had gone off half-cocked - see the red rain story a few years back. I'd rather see bacteria in a returned comet sample, but obviously the budget would have to be significantly higher.

March 19, 2009 12:37 am  

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