BY JAMES MAYNARD
Viruses from space could be the first forms of extraterrestrial life humans encounter. But, will this finding, when it occurs, be a bane to mankind, or a boon? A new study published in the journal Astrobiology seeks to answer that question.
Astrovirology is a new branch of science, studying how life could exist, in its simplest forms, on planets other than our home world.
The search for extraterrestrial life typically focuses on multi-cellular, or even intelligent, life. However, here on Earth, viruses greatly outnumber complex life, and such a scenario is likely on other worlds where life has evolved.
“Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on modern Earth. They are highly diverse both in structure and genomic sequence, play critical roles in evolution, strongly influence terran biogeochemistry, and are believed to have played important roles in the origin and evolution of life. However, there is yet very little focus on viruses in astrobiology,” Kenneth M. Stedman of Portland State University and other researchers wrote in their article detailing their study.
Viruses were, likely, among the earliest forms of “life” on Earth, but their design is so simple, researchers are divided on the question of whether or not they should even be considered living organisms. These microscopic organisms are capable of entering more complex cells, and reprogramming the host’s genetic information to produce more viruses.
Stedman and his group believe that space agencies, including NASA, should begin searching for these simple lifeforms on extraterrestrial locations, including Saturn and Jupiter. Such a search could, and should, begin with finding new methods to detect similar life with inhospitable environments, researchers believe.
If viruses are found on other worlds, the discovery would allow researchers the ability to study, for the first time, how life evolved on other worlds. However, some people are wary of how human populations may be affected by such novel strains of viruses. Stedman and his team believe that such threats from an extraterrestrial virus are low.
The Andromeda Strain, a 1969 novel, explored a story of an extraterrestrial microorganism run amuck on Earth. This novel by Michael Crichton was adapted, two years later, into a movie starring Arthur Hill, James Olsen, and Kate Reid.
Photo: Ebola virus particles seen infecting a larger cell. Courtesy: Flickr / NIH/AID