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Report: cells “from space” have unusual makeup

Sept. 8, 2008
Special to World Science  

A line­age of odd mi­crobes that may have crashed in­to Earth aboard a me­te­or in 2001 seem to con­tain mo­le­cules not found in Earthly cells, two sci­en­tists are re­port­ing.

Al­though many re­main skep­ti­cal over the re­mark­a­ble claim of mi­nus­cule ex­tra­ter­res­tri­al vis­i­tors, God­frey Lou­is, head of the phys­ics de­part­ment at Co­chin Uni­ver­s­ity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy in In­dia, pre­sented the find­ings at a sci­en­tif­ic con­fer­ence in San Die­go on Aug. 12.

The mys­ter­ious orbs give off a blue fluor­es­cence un­der ul­tra­vio­let light, ac­cord­ing to re­search­ers. (Courtesy G. Louis & A. S. Kumar)


The meet­ing was or­gan­ized by SPIE, the In­terna­t­ional So­ci­e­ty for Op­ti­cal En­gi­neer­ing. The ac­ro­nym re­flects its form­er name as So­ci­e­ty of Photo-Op­ti­cal In­stru­menta­t­ion En­gi­neers.

The mi­crobes give off un­sual sorts of flu­o­res­cence un­der spe­cif­ic light­ing con­di­tions, which fol­low pat­terns nev­er seen in nor­mal cells, ac­cord­ing to Lou­is and San­thosh Ku­mar of Ma­hat­ma Gan­dhi Uni­ver­s­ity in In­dia, co-authors of the re­port. The likely ex­plana­t­ion, they added, is that the par­t­i­cles con­tain mo­le­cules not found in Earthly or­gan­isms. 

Lou­is and Kumar pre­vi­ously re­ported that the odd part­i­cles con­tain no DNA, al­though they rep­li­cate abun­dantly in fe­ro­cious heat by spawn­ing new “cells” from with­in them­selves. It was these off­spring whose flu­o­res­cence prop­er­ties the pair tested.

Mys­te­ri­ous, ti­ny red glob­ules fell to Earth in a red rain that pelted parts of south­ern In­dia spo­rad­ic­ally for about two months in 2001, caus­ing wide­spread puz­zle­ment. The event, how­ev­er, was the lat­est in a se­ries of re­ports of col­ored rains from var­i­ous places stretch­ing back cen­turies, some bet­ter doc­u­mented than oth­ers.

Lou­is and Kumar say the orbs could be cells from space be­cause they have bi­o­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics but match no known life form. A space rock could have bro­ken up in the at­mos­phere and seeded clouds with these org­an­isms, the pair ar­gues, citing wit­ness reports of an air­burst just before the showers. Oth­er sci­en­tists have con­ced­ed the par­t­i­cles are mys­ti­fy­ing, but the claim of live cells from space is so bi­zarre that many are hold­ing back any as­sent.

Some note that the haz­ards of jour­ney through space, in­clud­ing in­tense radia­t­ion and ex­tra­or­di­nary trav­el times, make the pos­si­bil­ity of bac­te­ri­al trans­fer among dif­fer­ent so­lar sys­tems un­like­ly.

“Ex­changes of bac­te­ria be­tween plan­ets in dif­fer­ent so­lar sys­tems are only pos­si­ble dur­ing the birth clus­ter stage of the sys­tems,” when they’re sit­u­at­ed close to­geth­er in a star clus­ter, wrote sci­en­tists with NASA and oth­er in­sti­tu­tions in a re­port this month. Our own so­lar sys­tem is far from be­ing in such a stage. That pa­per has been ac­cept­ed for pub­lica­t­ion in the re­search jour­nal As­t­ro­phys­i­cal Jour­nal Let­ters.

On the oth­er hand, re­search­ers with Kris­tian­stad Uni­ver­s­ity in Swe­den and oth­er in­sti­tu­tions re­ported on Sept. 8 that some ti­ny Earth an­i­mals called tardi­grades proved sur­pris­ingly re­sil­ient in out­er space. Dried-out tardi­grades lived for 10 days un­pro­tected in that en­vi­ron­ment, and went on to re­pro­duce, these sci­en­tists wrote in the Sept. 9 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.

Lou­is and Ku­mar are per­sist­ing in their stud­ies; their ideas have gained sup­port from fig­ures such as Chan­dra Wick­ra­mas­inghe, di­rec­tor of the Car­diff Cen­tre for As­tro­bi­ol­o­gy at Car­diff Uni­ver­s­ity, U.K.

In his pre­s­enta­t­ion, Lou­is said that “red cell” spawns un­der var­i­ous light­ing con­di­tions ex­h­bited prop­er­ties vi­o­lat­ing a sci­en­tif­ic prin­ci­ple known as Kasha’s Rule, found to have few ex­cep­tions else­where. The rule has to do with flu­o­res­cence, the phe­nom­e­non in which a sub­stance emits light of one col­or up­on stimula­t­ion by light from anoth­er col­or. Kasha’s rule holds that in gen­er­al, the col­or of the ar­riv­ing light and the emit­ted light are un­re­lat­ed. 

To the con­tra­ry, Lou­is found that in the red glob­ules’ “off­spring,” alone among cells on Earth, these col­ors are re­lat­ed by a dis­tinct pat­tern.

“Hence the pres­ence of new kind of bio-mo­le­cules can be in­ferred,” Lou­is wrote in the pre­sented pa­per. “Or­gan­isms repli­cat­ing at 300 de­grees [Cel­si­us] and show­ing this kind of autoflu­o­res­cence are cur­rently un­known to ex­ist on earth yet sev­er­al thou­sand kilo­grams of these cells came down through the red rain.” The orig­i­nal par­ent cells are al­so un­der flu­o­res­cence test­ing and re­sults will be re­ported lat­er, Lou­is said.


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A lineage of odd microbes that may have crashed into Earth aboard a meteor in 2001 seem to contain molecules not found in Earthly cells, two scientists are reporting. Although many remain skeptical over the remarkable claim of minuscule extraterrestrial visitors, Godfrey Louis, head of the physics departmet at Cochin University of Science and Technology in India, presented the findings at a scientific conference in San Diego on Aug. 12. The meeting was organized by SPIE, the International Society for Optical Engineering. The acronym reflects its former name as Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers. The microbes give off unsual sorts of fluorescence under specific lighting conditions, which follow patterns never seen in normal cells, according to Louis and Santhosh Kumar of Mahatma Gandhi University in India, co-authors of the report. The likely explanation, they added, is that the particles contain molecules not characteristic of Earthly biological forms. Louis previously reported that the organisms contain no DNA, although they replicate abundantly in ferocious heat by spawning new “cells” from within themselves. It was these offspring whose fluorescence properties Louis and Kumar tested. Mysterious, tiny red globules fell to Earth in a red rain that pelted parts of southern India sporadically for about two months in 2001, causing widespread puzzlement. The event, however, was the latest in a series of reports of colored rains from various places stretching back centuries, some better documented than others. Louis contends that the orbs could be cells from space because they have biological characteristics but match no known life form. Other scientists have conceded the particles are mystifying, but the claim of live cells from space is so bizarre that many are holding back any assent. Some note that the hazards of journey through space, including intense radiation and extraordinary travel times, make the possibility of bacterial transfer among different solar systems unlikely. “Exchanges of bacteria between planets in different solar systems are only possible during the birth cluster stage of the systems,” when they’re situated close together in a star cluster, wrote scientists with NASA and other institutions in a report this month. Our own solar system is far from being in such a stage. That paper has been accepted for publication in the research publication Astrophysical Journal Letters. On the other hand, researchers with Kristianstad University in Sweden and other institutions reported on Sept. 8 that some tiny Earth animals called tardigrades proved surprisingly resilient in outer space. Dried-out tardigrades lived for 10 days unprotected in that environment, and went on to reproduce, these scientists wrote in the Sept. 9 issue of the research journal Current Biology. Louis and Kumar are persisting in their studies; their ideas have gained support from figures such as Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology at Cardiff University, U.K. In his presentation, Louis said that “red cell” spawns under various lighting conditions exhbited properties violating a scientific principle known as Kasha’s Rule, found to have few exceptions elsewhere. The rule has to do with fluorescence, the phenomenon in which a substance emits light of one color upon stimulation by light from another color. Kasha’s rule holds that in general, the color of the arriving light and the emitted light are unrelated. To the contrary, Louis found that in the red globules’ “offspring,” alone among cells on Earth, these colors are related by a distinct pattern. “Hence the presence of new kind of bio-molecules can be inferred,” Louis wrote in the presented paper. “Organisms replicating at 300 degrees [Celsius] and showing this kind of autofluorescence are currently unknown to exist on earth yet several thousand kilograms of these cells came down through the red rain.” The original parent cells are also under fluorescence testing and results will be reported later, Louis said.