By Walter Jayawardhana reporting from Los Angeles

An Indian and British team of scientists led by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe has declared that they have found what they called life coming from deep space in the edge of earth's own atmosphere in the form of clumps of bacteria.

Claiming the place where they found the microorganisms were too far away a place for those living organisms to have come from earth the Sri Lankan born Chandra Wickramasinghe, a respected astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales told a conference of scientists at San Diego, California, that a prima facie case of evidence for the raining down of bacteria from space on earth may have been established by this collection of bacteria at the edge of our own atmosphere.

Chandra Wickramasinghe is the world's leading exponent of a theory called Panspermia, that teaches earth and other planets in the universe may have been seeded for life by microorganism carrying comets.

Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe
(Photo (c)Courtesy Keith Davies )

This interview with Professor Wickramasinghe was conducted following his visit to California to present his findings to a meeting of scientists of the International Society for Optical Engineering in San Diego:

Question: It has been announced that you have performed some successful experiments with a team of Indian scientists in the upper atmosphere of the earth by using balloons. What's so significant about those findings?

Answer: Well, it is the very first time that microorganisms have been detected in the stratosphere at 41 km that are not terrestrial contaminants. The tropopause in the tropics is 16 km in height and no air is normally transported from the lower atmosphere above the tropopause. Only in exceptional events such as volcanic eruptions would surface material rise above the tropopause, and in such cases any bacterial clumps of Earthly origin would fall back within months. Moreover there was no such volcanic eruption in the run-up to our balloon flight, which was on 21 January 2001. So we are confident that we have detected microbes, about 100-300 per litre of air, which are coming to Earth from space - from comets. About one third of a tonne of cometary bacteria seems to be entering the Earth's atmosphere on a daily basis.

Q: Reports about those experiments said the organisms you collected from the edge of the planet's atmosphere were similar to bacteria found on earth? How similar are they? Are they close to viruses or bacteria?

A: So far we have used a test that can prove the presence of viable bacterial cells and clumps of bacteria. We use a fluorescent dye that is taken up only by living cells in a specially prepared sample, and these are imaged in a special type of microscope. We know living cells with cell walls are there, but have not yet been able to culture these bacteria. We intend to extract and amplify the DNA from these cells and that way we may be able to say more about how these bacteria compare with normal Earthly bacteria. So far all we can say is that in appearance they resemble Earth bacteria. This is what we expect, of course, because our theories say that all life on Earth came by this route. I expect that viruses will also be found.

Q: You have told a conference of scientists here in California recently that your team were able to collect these organisms about 41 kilometers (25 miles) above the local trpopause, How would you respond to the skeptics that those could have been easily transported up from the earth itself.

A: I have already answered this above. Microbes on the surface are not easily transported, only in rare events would one expect small quantities of bacteria to go to those heights and then they would settle back quickly. As far as our collection techniques go, we have used state of the art procedures to ensure absolute sterility, and the all the sample preparation procedures were carried out with the highest-level containment/aseptic handling protocols.

Q: Could you please describe how where and who conducted this experiment?

A: The experiment was collaboration between ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), IUCAA (Inter Universities Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune) and the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology, Cardiff University. The Indian scientists did the collection, and the biological analysis was by a team led by me at Cardiff University. The co-Principal Investigators of the project are Professor J.V. Narlikar of IUCAA and myself.

Q: How would you grade the results of this experiment?

A: Our results so far are preliminary, although decisive as to the presence of living cells at the edge of our atmosphere. Much more work needs to be done, for instance, to find out the nature (DNA) of these cells.

Q: Isn't this part of the same theory that you have been telling the world for a long time that tons of biological matter rain down on earth from outer space and even the earth's own life sprang up from those roots?

A: Yes, it is. I think now we have the most direct proof that would vindicate a theory that 25 years ago was regarded as controversial.

Q: Have the microbiologists who examined the collections found any difference in the varieties caught in upper atmosphere with the commonly found earthly bacteria?

A: No, our investigations on this point are not yet complete.

Q: If you maintain that these living organisms could travel many light years through the hazardous and deadly space of cosmic rays aren't there more chances for them to rise up from the earth itself to be found at the edge of the space?

A: No. Recent studies have shown that microorganisms are incredibly robust and can survive long periods of travel through space, perhaps millions of years. They are protected from ultraviolet radiation when they travel within clumps, with interior cells protected from ultraviolet radiation. In our theory comets are incubators and carriers of microbial life and we know that comets are expelled from planetary systems from time to time. Within comets freeze dried microbes will be protected from cosmic rays for unlimited lengths of time. The probability of life surviving interstellar journeys is enormously greater than the near miraculous transformation of inorganic matter into microbial life.

Q: If they came from space in what modes of vehicles they would have arrived here.

A: Comets are the source of these microorganisms. They escape from comets into meteor streams and the Earth picks them up as it ploughs through such streams.

Q: And possibly from where could they have arrived. Could that be from within the solar system or beyond?

A: The last points of origin are from comets within the solar system. But 5 billion years ago the comets picked up a sprinkling of viable bacteria from the great dust clouds of space. So the ultimate origin of the bacteria entering the Earth is truly cosmic - extending way beyond the confines of the solar system.

Q: Can you say, with this discovery, we are one step nearer to the idea that there are intelligent beings in the universe?

A: Because intelligence on our planet seems to have been the end result of assembling the genes that came within cosmic microorganisms, wherever similar assemblies take place, on countless other planets, the same end product of intelligence would be found. I believe this to be a cosmic imperative.

Q: It took nearly quarter of a century for you to make your theory of panspermia a sort of non-controversial issue among the scientists. But as a Buddhist who grew up in Sri Lanka, beings in other worlds were no strange phenomenon to you, I suppose. How do you react to that?

A: Yes, I think the idea of life being a cosmic phenomenon is fully in tune with Buddhist as well as Vedic philosophy. Ancient Buddhist texts describe inhabited circling distant suns, collections of suns to form greater world systems, collections of world systems and so on. I have surely been inspired by these philosophies throughout my scientific studies of life in the Universe.

Q: What would the acceptance of panspermia means to the world?

A: The acceptance of panspermia would herald a new worldview that I hope will unite the many nations and races of people that inhabit our planet. To realize that our life is only a minute component of an all pervading cosmic living system, and the knowledge that our genetic brothers and sisters still lurk amidst the stars will, I hope, change the way we look at our trivial differences and ourselves. It would also open the doors to new vistas of scientific exploration and discovery.


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