Spiders in the Stratosphere (?)
For some time now, I have been coming across the occasional mention
of unsubstantiated claims that spiders have been found in the stratosphere. Obviously, this would be damaging to the view that the biological entities we isolate from the high stratosphere are too large to be elevated from Earth to this region. I recently did a Google Book Advanced Search to see if I could find the origin of the claim that ballooning spiders can be found in the stratosphere. Here are the vague claims:
Long before the first balloonists or stratosphere flyer left old terra firma, young spiders were soaring into the blue”.
Anon (1934). Chemistry Leaflet vol.8, p.561.
Most spiders float at heights below 200 feet, but some have been found manoeuvring in the stratosphere.
Anon (1957). American Mercury, vol.84, p55.
Tiny spiders and insects have been floating above Mount Everest and into the stratosphere.
Wallace (1987). Life in the Balance, Harcourt Bruce.
In experiments carried out by the naturalist/filmmaker, David Attenborough, balloon spiders were collected above the Earth’s atmosphere in the UPPER layer of the stratosphere (my emphasis).
Filmer (1991). Filmer’s Spiders, Random House.
I was giving up on the possibility that I might find reference to an actual height at which spiders are apparently found when I came across the following:
Paoletti (ed.) (1991) Invertebrate Biodiversity as Bio-indicators of Sustainable Landscapes Elsevier.
This gives a height at which such isolation has occurred at 5000 meters, clearly well below the stratosphere at which our biological entities are isolated, although again no reference is given to the source of this claim. It seems therefore that I can relax about stratospheric spiders.
During analysis of a balloon-launched sampler, evidence for the existence of human, and a vast variety of DNA derived from other organisms, in the stratosphere was found. We obviously cannot publish such findings on human DNA because of the problem of contamination during sampling and processing (of course, this may not have happened!). However, this arguable finding leads us to ask the question –Is it possible that human DNA, and other genetic material, could reach such a height? As readers of this website will know we base our claims that life is incoming to Earth partly on modelling studies which show that no particle larger than 5 microns can reach the stratosphere. Since the unusual, incoming biological entities isolated by us are between 10-40-plus microns in size we claim that they are incoming to rather than exiting from Earth (in addition no Earth contaminants, such as fungal spores, pollen and grass shards are ever found on the inside of our samplers). It is possible, however, that particles of the size of bacteria, viruses and sub-5 micron particles of human tissue, notably skin, could be elevated to the stratosphere. Considering the vast amount of micron or submicron-sized human and animal (as well as plant) material that exists on Earth (which is available to be carried into the atmosphere and then stratosphere) it would not be at all surprising to find human DNA at extreme heights. Of course human DNA abounds in the laboratory and Occam’s Razor will (with obvious justification) always be used by critics to claim that any reported findings of human DNA in the stratosphere results from contamination; indeed it would be difficult to imagine an experiment which could be set up to exclude such contamination (possibly sealed, automated robotic DNA amplifiers etc., which would exclude human-DNA contamination night be employed). For the moment we can only report our preliminary findings and hope that workers with such an automated system could look for human DNA on our sampler stubs.
We would be happy to launch a sampler specially treated to exclude human DNA for such a project. Even in the absence of conclusive evidence for the presence of human and other DNA in the stratosphere, I remain convinced that DNA will reach the stratosphere from Earth. It would then be subjected to the mutating (and DNA destructive) effects of UVC. Some of this material would be returned to Earth attached to larger, rapidly depositing particles of cosmic dust, while other DNA-rich particles would continue on their journey outwards. Such a conclusion opens up the remarkable possibility that DNA from Earth could be spread into the cosmos (perhaps protected by a coating of submicron dust or carbon particles).
Our latest balloon-lofted sampler was launched into the stratosphere above Fort Laramie, Wyoming, USA (launched by Sent into Space.com around the time of the recent solar eclipse). (more…)