Summarizing decades of research into the rather “unusual” idea of viruses from space makes one wonder how scientific we can be when it comes to assumptions about the history of life on Earth.
It’s easy to throw around words like “crazy,” “outcast” and “weirdo” when describing the scientific periphery, but then there are papers like this one from 2018 that make us blink, not knowing where to start.
A total of 33 names were listed as contributors to this review, which was published in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology in August 2018. That journal is peer-reviewed and fairly well-cited. So it’s not exactly a small or niche paid source.
Science writer Steven Fleischfresser details the biographies of two of the most famous scientists, Edward Steele and Chandra Wickramasinghe. It’s well worth the read.
In brief, Steele is an immunologist who enjoys notoriety among official science for his views on evolution, which are based on the acquisition of gene changes due to environmental influences rather than random mutations, which he calls meta-lamarckism.
Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, has had a somewhat less controversial career, gaining recognition for his empirical confirmation of Sir Fred Hoyle’s hypothesis of the production of complex carbon molecules in interstellar dust.
Wickramasinghe and Hoyle were also responsible for another thesis on space biology. Only this one is based on more than just the origin of organic chemistry.
The Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis on cometary (space) biology makes the rather simple claim that the direction of evolution was significantly influenced by biochemistry originating not on our planet.
In Wickramasinghe’s own words, “comets are the carriers and propagators of life in space, and life on Earth arose and evolved as a result of the impact of comets.”
Wickramasinghe argues that these inputs are not limited to a generous sprinkling of amino acids baked into space.
Rather, they include viruses that are introduced into organisms, pushing their evolution in entirely new directions.
The report, titled “The Cause of the Cambrian Explosion – Earthly or Cosmic?” concludes, based on existing research, that the rain of extraterrestrial retroviruses played a key role in the diversification of life in our oceans about half a billion years ago.
“Thus, retroviruses and other viruses hypothesized to be released in plumes of comet debris have the potential to add new DNA sequences to terrestrial genomes and stimulate further mutagenic changes in somatic and germline genomes,” the authors write.
It was during this period that a group of mollusks known as cephalopods first extended their tentacles from under their shells, branching out into an astonishing array of sizes and shapes in a seemingly remarkably short period of time.
The genetics of these organisms, which today include octopuses, squids and cuttlefish, are as bizarre as the animals themselves, thanks in part to their ability to edit their DNA on the fly.
The authors of the paper make the rather bold claim that these genetic oddities may be a sign of life from outer space.
This time, not space viruses, but the arrival of whole genomes frozen in stasis before thawing in our warm waters.
“Thus, the possibility that cryopreserved squid and/or octopus eggs arrived in ice bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted,” they write.
In his review of the paper, medical researcher Keith Baverstock of the University of Eastern Finland acknowledged that there is plenty of evidence that is plausibly consistent with the H-W thesis, such as the curious chronology of the appearance of viruses.
Journal editor Dennis Noble admits that “further research is needed,” which is some understatement.
But given the development of space organic chemistry in recent years, there is room for debate.
“As space chemistry and biology grow in importance, it is appropriate for a journal devoted to the interaction between physics and biology to encourage debate,” Noble says.
Just in case these tests confirm assumptions, we recommend being well-prepared for the return of our cephalopod masters. Who knows when they’ll want to return the eggs?
This study was published in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology.