Summarizing decades of research on the rather “unusual” idea surrounding viruses from space raises questions about how scientific we can be when it comes to thinking about the history of life on Earth.
It’s easy to use words like “psycho”, “con man” and “dissenter” to describe the fringes of science, but then articles like this from 2018 appear and make us blink like an owl, not knowing where to even start.
A total of 33 people were listed as authors of this review, which was published Advances in biophysics and molecular biology back in August 2018. The journal is reviewed and sufficiently cited. So it’s not exactly a small or niche pay-per-publish source.
Naturalist writer Stephen Fleischfresser details two of the most famous participating scientists: Edward Steele and Chandra Wickramasinghe. It’s worth reading.
At least Steele is an immunologist with little reputation for his views on evolution based on the acquisition of environmental gene changes rather than random mutations in what he calls metalamarckism.
Wickramasingh, on the other hand, has made a somewhat less controversial career, receiving recognition for empirical confirmation of Sir Fred Hoyle’s hypothesis describing the formation of complex carbon molecules in interstellar dust.
Wickramasingh and Hoyle were also responsible for another PhD in space biology. Only this one is based not only on the origin of organic chemistry.
The Hoyle Wickramasinghe (HW) thesis on cometary (cosmic) biology makes a rather simple statement that the direction of evolution essentially depends on biochemistry, which did not originate on our planet.
According to Vikramasinghe, “Comets are carriers and spreaders of life in space, and life on Earth arose and developed as a result of the impact of comets.”
These inputs, Wickramasingh argued, are not limited to plentiful supplements of “space-baked” amino acids.
Rather, they include viruses that invade organisms, pushing their evolution in entirely new directions.
The report, Cause of the Cambrian Explosion — Terrestrial or Space ?, drawing on existing research, concludes that rain from extraterrestrial retroviruses played a key role in the diversification of life in our oceans approximately half a billion years ago.
“Thus, retroviruses and other viruses that are thought to be released in the traces of cometary debris have the potential to add new DNA sequences to earth’s genomes and cause further mutagenic changes in somatic and germ-line genomes,” the authors write.
Let it sink in for a moment. And take a deep breath before continuing, because that was the most tame part.
It was during this period that a group of molluscs known as cephalopods first extended their tentacles from beneath their shells, branching into a dizzying array of sizes and shapes in what seemed like a surprisingly short period of time.
The genetics of these organisms, which today include octopuses, squid and cuttlefish, are as bizarre as the animals themselves, in part due to their ability to edit their DNA on the fly.
The authors of the article are quite bold in claiming that these genetic oddities could be a sign of life from space.
Not space viruses this time, but the arrival of entire genomes frozen in stasis before melting in our cool waters.
“Thus, the possibility that cryopreserved squid and / or octopus eggs arrived in ice fireballs several hundred million years ago cannot be discounted,” they wrote.
In her review of the article, medical researcher Keith Baverstock of the University of Eastern Finland admitted that there is a lot of evidence that plausibly agrees with the HW thesis, such as a curious timeline for the emergence of viruses.
But science is not progressing like that.
“I believe this article justifies skepticism about the scientific value of independent theories of the origin of life,” Baverstock said at the time.
“The weight of plausible but not definitive evidence, as compelling as it may be, is not the point.”
While this idea is as new and exciting as it is provocative, nothing on the summary helps us better understand the history of life on Earth than existing assumptions, and adds little value to our evolutionary model.
However, with serious caveats, science can handle a fair amount of insanity from time to time.
Magazine editor Denis Noble admits that “further research is needed,” which is a bit of an understatement.
But given the development of space organic chemistry in recent years, there is room for discussion.
“As the importance of space chemistry and biology becomes more important, it is appropriate to have a journal on the interactions between physics and biology to stimulate debate,” Noble said.
“In the future, ideas are bound to become testable.”
Just in case these tests confirm the assumptions, we recommend that you prepare well for the return of our cephalopod masters. Who knows when they will want those eggs back?
This study was published in Advances in biophysics and molecular biology…
A version of this article was first published in August 2018.