Bugs from Space: Panspermia and The Interplanetary Transfer of Life

Teeming with Life? The Rho Ophiuchus cloud complex located about 500 light-years away. This view spans about five light-years across. The false-color image is taken from the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Historically, the theory of panspermia (from the Greek pas meaning ‘all’ and sperma meaning ‘seed’) - that life exists throughout the Universe, and is distributed by asteroids, meteoroids and planetesimals - arose as an attempt to address fundamental concerns over the evolution of life on our planet, specifically the ability of life to evolve in the harsh conditions postulated to be present on the early Earth. The theory was re-popularised by Francis Crick (the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule) and Leslie Orgel in a 1973 paper that rather controversially suggested that life was intentionally sent to the Earth by an advanced civilisation on another planet.

Conditions on the early Earth were unlikely to have particularly conducive for life. A particularly unpleasant period of the Earth’s history, known as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), occurred at the Hadean-Archean boundary, roughly 4 Ga ago, and was characterised by extremely high cratering rates on inner Solar System planets, evident from petrological analysis of impact craters on the mostly undisturbed surface of the Moon. The LHB presents a conundrum when considering the evolution of life on Earth: a series of statistically plausible cataclysmic asteroid or meteorite impacts would have in effect sterilised the planet, boiling the oceans and obliterating vast swathes of terra firma. However, life arose rapidly after the LHB, recorded by carbon isotope analysis of sedimentary rocks to be possibly as early as ~3.8 Ga, in direct contention with our understanding of the probabilities of the critical evolutionary steps required for the evolution of life.  Is it possible that the Earth was seeded with life during, or after, the Late Heavy Bombardment?

Approaching this problem methodically, organisms that survive interplanetary transfer would have to endure ejection from an impacted planet, transit in space and eventual re-entry and impact onto another world, thousands or perhaps millions of years later. Is this really feasible?

As it turns out, it is.

Bacillus subtilis: a surprisingly competent astronaut (isciencemag.co.uk)

Studies analysing the factors associated with the ejection process considered the ability of bacteria to endure the associated extreme pressures, temperatures and acceleration likely to be experienced at the beginning of a trip to space.  A study exposing spores of Bacillus subtilis to peak shock pressures of 32 GPa (gigapascals) and post-shock temperatures of 250 °C, similar to values expected to have been experienced by Martian ejecta, reported survival rates of 10-4, indicating that the high shock-pressures and heating associated with planetary escape may not be detrimental to bacterial survival in the long-term, providing that a significant fraction of the ejecta avoids being heated to > 100 °C. Similar research indicated that, even when Bacillus subtilis spores are subjected to acceleration 2.5 – 25 times greater than would be normally experienced by ejected material, survival rates remained between 40 and 100%.

Similarly, interplanetary space may not be as harsh an environment as initially thought, at least for bacteria encased in several metres of rock. However, there are still the issues of vacuum, long periods of thermal inactivation, desiccation, photolysis of volatiles, impacts with micrometeorites and most significantly ionising radiation, in the form of solar ultra-violet, solar particle events and galactic cosmic rays to deal with. Modelling studies suggest that organisms at the centre of objects greater than 100m in diameter receive a sterilising dose of radiation after 10 to 100 million years in space, whilst centimetre and smaller objects are sterilised in less than 10,000 years. For an estimate of transit duration, Monte-Carlo trajectory analysis used to estimate the likely duration of ejecta in space approximates that the vast majority of Martian meteorites reach the Earth within 10,000 to 100 million years; for approximately 0.1% of Martian meteorites the transit period is less than 10,000 years. On top of this, recent studies suggest that the space environment may actually be conducive to microorganism growth, providing adequate radiation defence is in place, due to a currently undiscovered mechanism disrupting the ability of antibiotics to inhibit the proliferation of bacteria.

Seems plausible so far, but what about landing? With no external evidence of lithopanspermic planetary colonisation as of yet this stage of the transfer process is perhaps the least well understood. The shock of a low angle (≤ 30°) impact is predicted to be less than those associated with ejection, so a viable population may be able to survive landing. Even large organisms, such as the worms recovered from the wreckage of the Columbia space shuttle, may be able to weather re-entry. However, environmental conditions such as nutrient availability and appropriate osmolarity, low toxicity and low predation will dictate the ability of surviving organisms to colonise the planet.

Considering the time scale of the evolution of the Solar System, the ejecta liberating LHB event and the results of empirical studies on Earth and in space, the possibility of panspermia may not as unfeasible as it first appears…

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2 comments on “Bugs from Space: Panspermia and The Interplanetary Transfer of Life

  1. It seems that the announcement was a liltte overblown. What was found was simply a bacterium that, in an environment of high arsenic concentration was able to use arsenic rather than phosphorus in its cellular processes and DNA. It’s not quite as exciting as something truly meeting the criteria for life but not at all like other terrestrial entities. It seems rather akin to the odd bacteria that we have found in deep sea volcanic vents and similar extremophiles. It does continue to push the envelope a liltte bit as to what is OK and suggests that extraterrestrial life might have very different biologies from our own. I would wonder, however, how plentiful arsenic is as an element as opposed to phosphorus in the universe as a whole before we imagine its being a regular way of doing cellular business. It is kind of cool to think of an arsenic planet where all the life forms would be poisonous to us, however. A new extraterrestrial version of don’t drink the water?

  2. Pingback: Recent Posts | the II-I- blog

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