Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ISRO Finds New Microorganisms And Hints At Alien Origins

Three new "species" of bacteria have been reported from a sample collected at about 45 km above the earth's surface by a Indian Space Research Organization probe.

ISRO has a press release about this discovery. Here's what caught my eye:

While the present study does not conclusively establish the extra-terrestrial origin of microorganisms, it does provide positive encouragement to continue the work in our quest to explore the origin of life.

What a strange statement to make! Who even made the suggestion that these bacteria could be extra-terrestrials? Why this angle?

Anyways- You're damn right it doesn't establish that ET is here and Excuze Me!! Absolutely nothing about this finding provides positive encouragement to continue work in our quest to explore the origin of life. That field is thriving and cutting edge without these sensationalist gimmicks.

Let's be clear. There is nothing remotely alien about these bacteria. There are certain differences with other terrestrial bacteria, such as a greater resistance to ultra-violet radiation, but the scientists analyzing these bacteria seem to have no trouble placing them phylogenetically or on a family tree of a larger terrestrial bacterial group. That means that these newly found bacteria have a shared evolutionary history with terrestrial bacteria. Alien organisms with no shared history with life on earth will not find a place on our family tree. These are bacteria of earthly origin which have been isolated for some time and have diverged somewhat from their land-bound cousins.

How has science reporting gone so far off the track here in India? That a report of bacteria found in the atmosphere leads to the inevitable suggestion of alien origins?

But off course the fact that a statement like this was made reveals the motives behind this experiment and that is to test the late Sir Fred Hoyle and his student Prof. Jayant Narlikar's pet theory that life on earth was seeded by ....well... life from outer space. ISRO has not couched it in these terms, but the principal investigator of this project is ... Prof. Jayant Narlikar.


Now, the possibility that organic molecules were showered on earth by comets is taken seriously by many scientists, but Hoyle and Narlikar think that bacteria, that is fully formed cellular complex life rode on the backs of comets and seeded the earth. The problem is that finding bacteria in the stratosphere which are genetically nearly identical to terrestrial bacteria does nothing to test this theory. It doesn't show that these bacteria or indeed life came to planet earth from a comet source. For that you would have to find bacteria preserved on cometary bodies and compare them with bacteria on earth and establish ancestry. But so far these heavenly bodies have been found not to contain any living material in them. Isn't it more likely that the ancestor of these stratosphere bacteria got up there from down below here and then differentiated somewhat?

That is the reason why scientists could phylogenetically classify them. There is a family relationship between these new "species" and known species on earth.

But understanding common descent and evolution was never Prof. Narlikar's forte. He once proposed that the SARS virus originated in outer space just like these violet bacteria.

The original theory of panspermia claimed that life on earth was seeded by comets and meteorites bringing life-forms from outer space. But Narlikar believes that those heavenly bodies have been raining death on this planet as well.

The brain dead Indian media encouraged by Prof. Narlikar has given front page space to this "extra-terrestrial origin of bacteria" angle. Times of India carried an interview yesterday I think which is not yet online. But I don't trust anything Prof. Narlikar says about biology.

Neither should the media. But here in India if a senior scientist makes a claim then ...well then

how can we question your expertise in biology and evolution or any other topic on this planet even though you are an astrophysicist when you are so senior most respected most learned sir...

But you should question- and not let people get away with nonsense.


  1. Google news threw this article up a couple of days back and I was wondering what the heck are these scientists talking about? My suspicion grew even more when I searched for other news reports on it but couldn't find a single credible news organization in other parts of world covering it.

    You are right. Sensationalist gimmicks is what indian scientists seem to be relying on these days instead of tough, back-breaking science. WHo knows maybe this is another ploy by ISRO to get a few extra crores of tax payers money.

  2. I have no hope that the Indian media will report critically on science, but what is sad is that Indian scientists are nowhere to be heard explaining the science and issuing criticisms when outrageous and dumb theories are proposed by a senior scientist and splashed on the front pages by media for public consumption.

    This does real damage to public understanding of science.

  3. Nice blog. Its a shame that the indian media is nothing more of tabloid reporting. The indian science, well... when scientists recite vishnu sahasranamam while launching PSLV's.. you know what its made of.

    These folks are a shame to the APJ Kalam's genuine hardworking kind who strive their entire lives in quest of scientific advancement.

  4. well how is the recitation of anything anti-science!!!

  5. @Ramesh: The exact way in which reciting Vishnu Sahasranamam affects the possibility of a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle with approx. 19000 independent components succeeding of failing its flight path. That's how.

  6. the whole news on "alien theory"for these 'bacteria' sounded like a clip from Aaj Tak or India TV.if scientist are not being scientific, then this report at least shows them to be very media savvy..they know where the bread is buttered. Its all about TRPs bhai...Jai Ho to Indian science

  7. what does it say about the state of Indian science when so many readers have a perception that scientists are as much to blame as the media?