Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


It's a fitting title for a few days past Halloween. Sugar withdrawal and the odor of gently scorching pumpkin fresh in our minds. This term - necropanspermia - is a new one to me, and comes from a thorough and carefully put together paper that popped up this morning from Paul Wesson. Although it is ostensibly a review of the ideas of panspermia (and a nice balanced one at that), it also gets to some rather interesting points.

The transfer of planetary - potentially life-carrying - material between stellar systems seems only likely for tiny particles. Dust grains of a few to a few tens of microns across are the ultimate solar sailors. The radiation pressure of photons from one star accelerates these minute pieces across interstellar space. Routes that lead into new solar systems result in the gentle deceleration of the dust as it plunges into the photon cloud of a star, and the possibility exists of being swept into the atmosphere of any handy planets - just as happens here on Earth. The question is what, if any, viable organisms can hold up over millions of years of interstellar transport - subject to cosmic rays and high-energy photons - to re-plant on a new world?

Wesson's discussion takes a rather interesting direction. He argues both that viral material may be prevalent, and that this type of fragmented DNA/RNA may be quite sufficient to help 'seed' life in new environments. One motivation for suggesting this is the conclusion that most transferred organisms are dead-on-arrival, there just doesn't seem to be a way that intact DNA and/or cells are going to survive their trans-galactic journeys. Another motivation is simple physics - a microscopic dust grain might barely have space for one poorly protected bacterium, but it could easily harbor a hundred much smaller viruses.

The hypothesis that there was an ancient 'viral world' here on the Earth - complete with unique viral genes that help replication - has been around for a while. While even viruses might not arrive intact after interstellar transit, this might be far less of a problem, since they play fast and loose with their molecules in the first place. It's an interesting twist to the long and checkered history of the idea of panspermia - perhaps we should be rushing cosmic dust particles from high in our atmosphere off to the labs for some quick looks for viral DNA?


Eniac said...

I have some serious trouble imagining this.

How do you suppose the viruses go about finding a host on that new planet when they arrive? Being viruses, they would be incapable of surviving on their own even if intact.

Not being intact, what would keep them from immediately dissolving and dispersing without a trace like any other dead organic material in sub-nanogram quantitites thrown into a planetary environment would?

It might be worth investigating if desiccation-hardened organisms such as Deinococcus Radiodurans would be able to stay intact travelling through interstellar space. A dead organism, by definition, cannot reproduce and would therefore be completely ineffective at panspermia.

Caleb Scharf said...

I completely agree - I think this is where so much of panspermia hits a wall, and this viral notion perhaps even more so (it's predicated in the Wesson paper on the rather hand-wavy notion that a 'viral world' can exist sans hosts). There's this implicit assumption that sprinkling some magic DNA onto a fertile planet does all the seeding you ever need. Even viable organisms would presumably have to be very very lucky to grow their numbers quickly enough to make a go of it. It seems to me that there are a range of possibilities - for example, the panspermia interacts with pre-existing something and promotes a new evolutionary pathway, or it provides the 'tipping point' for an in-place pre-biotic chemistry. It would be very interesting to perform some lab work to explore these scenarios, although I can imagine the protocols might be a nightmare.