Critics of panspermia often say that the idea is of no interest, since it merely removes the problem of life’s origin from Earth to somewhere else. However, if life did originate anywhere, then obviously by transferring such an origin to another place in the cosmos we are provided with an infinite number of possible places of origin, which provide an infinite variety of conditions. In contrasts, limiting the origin of life to Earth reduces the probability of it having occurred to an infinitely low probability.
Our main research interest at the moment revolves around the idea that microbes are distributed throughout the cosmos, this means that life is not exclusive to our planet; life on Earth we contend is not isolated from the universe which surrounds it.
Panspermia is the theory that life is a cosmic phenomenon, and that life did not start on Earth as a chemical process, but was brought from elsewhere in the Universe in the form of proto-life, or as microbes (of course the building blocks of life would also have arrived to Earth, and may have acted a microbial substrate). This theory is not credited to us, nor it is something new, in fact; the word “Panspermia” means “seeds everywhere” in Greek, and the first recorded mention of it was by Anaxagoras around 2500 years ago, who commented that “the seeds of life are carried through the air, and wherever it lands new life is formed”.
Anaxagoras (born ca. 500–480) suggested that the seeds of life are distributed everywhere, and when they lan in/on a suitable place; new organisms would flourish from it.
Panspermia has undergone many refinements. The credit for the modern (and the most comprehensive) version of the panspermia theory goes to Sir Fred Hoyle (1915 –2001) and his PhD student at the time, Chandra Wickramasinghe, who is now Professor and Director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham. They proposed that comets transport microbes across the cosmos (i.e. the cometary panspermia theory). It should be noted that the modern version of panspermia does not contradict evolution, as some critics often misguidedly maintain. Obviously, any proto-life or microbes which arrive to Earth from space could have, by the process of natural selection (as first suggested by Wells and Matthew) evolve into higher organism and produce life as we know it today.
Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe in their early years of their collaboration
Microbes in the stratosphere?
I will not provide all of the scientific details about the possible processes by which microbes might be transferred throughout the universe because many online resources are available on this subject. However, many experts conclude that microbes could be transferred around the cosmos if protected from environmental extremes by being encased in cosmic dust, or within meteorites or asteroids. In addition to explaining the origin of life, a form of panspermia suggests that life is continually arriving to Earth from space. This possibility, I termed NEOPANSPERMIA (neo-for new). Hoyle and Wicrkramasinghe also suggest that pandemic diseases may originate from space, an idea covered by the terms PATHOPANSPERMIA or PATHOSPERMIA.
Hoyle and Wickramasighe suggested that if Neopansermia is correct. i.e. that microbes, or other life forms, are continually arriving to Earth from space, then it should be possible to sample these incomers by sending samplers(by balloons or sounding rockets) to the stratosphere. Until recently scientist were almost unanimous in the belief that the high stratosphere contained no life; firstly because this layer was considered too high to receive microbes, or other particles, from Earth, and secondly because the conditions there are considered so extreme (e.g. no water, cold temperatures, desiccation and lethal doses of ultra violet radiation) that no life could survive there.
Until recently, few attempts have been made to sample the stratosphere. Although investigating the stratosphere is not an easy task, considering the money spent on space exploration the sampling of this region (as we have recently shown) can be done relatively so cheaply.
One of the most notable attempts to sample the stratosphere was done by collaboration between Wickramasinghe and Indian scientists in 2003, three new bacteria species were eventually discovered in there.
Although I was involved in analyzing the samples obtained from the Indian balloon mission in 2003, ourown search for microbes in the stratosphere really took off in 2013, when I met two extremely talentedresearch students, Alex Baker and Christopher Rose, who were launching balloons into the stratosphere.They later turned this passion into a business (Sent into Space).
Chris and Alex assembling a stratospheric balloon,
launching, and retrieving it.
Together, we designed a novel new technique for sampling the stratosphere, this new method involves using small helium-filled weather balloon which carries a small sampler box. The balloon is followed by GPS and the sample is safely returned to Earth after the required flight time. The sampling unit is a CD-drawer which can be opened and closed by remote control in the stratosphere. Particles are collected on carbon scanning electron microscope stubs which are then transferred directly to the SEM.
This concept image shows the basic main components of our balloon launching mission, those include a Foam-box that has been wrapped in isolating protective material, recording devices, location finder, a black box, and the main sampler drawer which have the SEM stubs mounted on top of it.
All transfers are made under sterile conditions in a clean room. The balloons are covered in talc by the manufacturers and this acts as a built in control to check for contamination from the balloon; no talc as yet been found on the samples. Another natural occurring control is provided by the fact that the SEM imaging is done by Chris and Alex who are engineers and know little about biology; a fact which means that they are unbiased in their selection of particles in relation to their potential as organisms.
Details about the balloon launches can be found in our published papers. In short, so far we completed three successful launches; those were in 2013, 2014, and 2015. All were launched and landed within the UK. The first launch was made from near Chester, Cheshire and landed in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. When the balloon was launched up, the sampler box underneath it was kept close during the ascent, and only opened remotely at the required height which was 22 km for the first launch and was kept on until the balloon reached 27km before the sampling drawer was closed shut again. The balloon kept going up for a while before it exploded due to the low pressure thereby sending the payload down which deployed a parachute that brought it down safely back to earth.
By running the wind simulations and with the aid of the installed locator within the box Chris and Alex were able to find the box which was intact and unopened. The box was then transported back to the lab in Sheffield where we took all the possible cautionary steps to avoid contamination when handing the samples within. The stubs were first prepared for SEM examination by sputter-coating them with gold, and then analyzed.
Despite my confidence in our methodology, and the conclusions that I drew from investigating the panspermia theory to that time, I tried not to be too optimistic about what might be found on the stubs from the first launch. I certainly never expected to find what is shown below; nature, it turned out, was amazingly more creative and surprising than any of us dared to dream.
This SEM (Scanning Electron microscope) Image shows what we suggest is a biological entity; upon impact with the SEM stub. It has a pronounced proboscis and sphincter and appears to be a collapsed ball-like entity.
Although nothing so far on earth resembles the entity shown above, even the novice biologist would agree that it simply cannot be a mere dust particle or an organic micrometeorite. This is a biologicalentity without any doubt.
Another strange entity is the one below:
A flask shaped biological entity, again notice the particular shape for it…
We were very lucky with our first launch, because it provided the largest variety of biological entities (yet)… Below is another one from that first mission:
More strange biological entities, which may be individual organisms, or components of a larger organism.
Unfortunately, we were not able to do EDAX (Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy) on the above because it was not available to us at the time. However, we used it when analyzing the remaining samples from the first launch, and we were not disappointed, for example, one of the most interesting findings so far is the large spherical object shown below:
Large spherical entity, with a smaller ball attached to it. This object must have hit the surface with speed, thus creating the impact crater shown on the stub.
Upon seeing this object I had my worries at first, because although there was still no explanation of how it got up into more than 22 km defying the laws of physics, it did resemble a pollen seed, which might have indicated a contamination with our work, thankfully, my fears disappeared the second the results from the EDAX came in, and was replaced with sheer excitement. Our first surprise was when we dislodged the large sphere from the impact site using a nano-needle, which showed the large impact crater beneath it, more importantly, the ball was damaged due to the impact thus showed some sort of “gooey” substance oozing from it.
This image shows the large spherical object being removed from the impact site; notice the clear impact crater and the protoplasmic substance that is coming out from the ball. Note also the filamentous material on the outside.
EDAX, simply put, is a technique that allows us to see the chemical composition for the material examined with it. So when we used it on the sample above, two very different results came in; for the outer surface of the Ball, EDAX showed it to be made primarily of titanium, with smaller amounts of vanadium also present. While the inner “oozing” material was shown to be made of Carbon and Oxygen. In other words, this is biological substance contained within a titanium sphere.
When we announced our findings, many of those within the scientific community tried to play down the results. What is really saddening is the fact that none of those critics actually came in with a validscientific explanation for dismissing our findings, except that is the usual cries of—- contamination? However, we did a control launch where we sent the balloons up but never opened the sampling the drawer; when the retrieved sampler was examined in the lab the results were as follows:
SEM images for the stubs that were inside the control-launched balloons, with nothing falling or attaching to them.
In all of our controls there was not a single case of a contaminant, which demonstrates the sterility of our work.
Did the biological entities we found originated form space rather than Earth? If the findings do not result from contamination from our handling, could not it then be a contamination from Earth-borne microbes reaching the stratosphere? That was the argument that most of those critics gave, an argument we answer with this question: Where is everything else? Why cannot we find pollen seeds, or grass bits oranything else that resembles terrestrial microbes? If objects are being lifted from Earth to space by some-yet undiscovered mechanism, why is this mechanism so picky and choses only to lift one type of molecules leaving the others on Earth?
We do not claim objects can never be lifted from Earth, because they do on some occasions, like with strong volcanic eruptions, but none has happened up into two years prior to the launch. Critics who are supposed to have a bit of a scientific background seems to be overlooking two major facts: Gravity, and the nature of the Earth’s atmosphere; Anything bigger than 5 micron in diameter cannot be lifted by air into the stratosphere, and even so, it would not persist more than two days before being brought back by the Earth’s pull. The second fact is the presence of a boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the tropopause; this barrier prevents updrafts from the earth to reach up into the higher layers of the atmosphere.
Still, we acknowledge that replicability is an essential element to support any hypothesis, which is why we planned from the start to do a series of launching that extend over the following years. Our secondlaunch was in 2014, the same techniques and precautions were undertaken, only this time biological entities failed to show, and we were left with only either empty stubs or ones showing “bullet-hole” impacts caused by inorganic cosmic dust particles coming in as micrometeorites. And although the absence of biological entities might seembad at first, it actually meant three things: The first being the sterility of our work is confirmed, because we used the exact same techniques as before, so if there was any contaminants in the first work, it should have also appeared within the 2nd mission findings. The second conclusion is that findings from the first launch cannot be lifted from the Earth, because if that was the case, you would be expecting to find them in every sampling trip, which was not the case. The final conclusion would be that if biological entities are arriving to earth continuously, they are bound to be arriving within comets or another means, therefore their arrival would be intermittent and during specific periods during the year, we were lucky to have positive findings from the first launch, otherwise we might have abandoned the whole project.
Images for the micrometeorites impact the SEM stubs creating the bullet-holes craters.
The third launch was completed at the beginning of this year, and biological samples appeared again within it. Same as before, the morphology and EDAX results highly suggest an extra-terrestrial origin for them. The third mission results showed a very important thing, our results from the 1st mission were repeatable. More details are in the published papers.
This image is for one of the samples from the third mission, showing once more a collapsed balloon-like entity, EDAX results shows a high amount of Carbon and Oxygen.
What does all of this means?
Despite the fact that we do not consider ourselves entirely done (we still have more launches left to do!), it is safe from the work done so far to conclude the following:
One of the reasons to believe the findings to be biological is because of the unique morphology, and they seem extremely different from the cosmic dust and other inorganic particles that were isolated along with it, also, many of the biological entities shows signs of bilateral symmetry, a feature often demonstrated in living organisms.
While no true microbiologist can ever say that he can completely eliminate contamination, we feel confident in our work, every possible precaution was made to avoid contaminants; the box was air blasted and swabbed with alcohol, SEM stubs had their protective cover up into moments before launch, and the box did not open unless reaching the required height. But most importantly, control launches were performed, where the box would be sent up but never opened, those control launches never showed any positive findings, thus confirming that our approach is contamination free.
As for why do we believe those biological entities are coming from space, and not being lifted from the Earth? Again, the peculiar shapes for most of them, which is unlike anything found of Earth so far, one good example, would be the Titanium sphere. Also, the impact crater associated with most of them indicate that those objects came at speed, hitting the surface of the stubs. Also, the micrometeoritesindirectly indicate that those objects had an extra-terrestrial origin. Another thing to consider is the tropopause, which is a barrier between the troposphere and the stratosphere, which prevents the updraft of winds from going from the lower troposphere into the upper layers. And even if some particles managed to go up, say by a volcanic eruption eruptions, any particles bigger than 5 micron that were lifted would be brought back by the effect of gravity within a short period.
What is next?
Like we stated earlier, we will continue to do more launches over the incoming months, SEM and EDAX would still be used for some of the samples, but we will also investigate new methods and techniques, our main aim would be to demonstrate the presence of DNA within the samples, and maybe even succeed in amplifying and sequencing it.
In the meantime… here are some pictures from our ongoing fourth mission in Iceland where we just completed the launch but still analyzing the samples: