“The human imagination is a preview of coming attractions,” Albert Einstein was fond of saying. Viruses are essentially roving segments of genetic material that have learned how to “put on space suits and leave the cell,” observed Greg Bear in his epic work of science fiction, Darwin’s Radio, that mirrors Einstein’s adage, suggesting that viruses in our genome function as carriers of evolutionary messages—a genetic radio, so to speak. In this sense, we may simply be spaceships for virus.
Bear sees viruses as transports for primordial nano-encapsulated genetic information that have existed from the beginning of biological time –“a string of atoms, clumped into molecules, wrapped in another kind of molecular shell, a kind of biological M&M.”
“Imagine an alien creature floating in space,” observes New Scientist about the zombie world of viruses that could hold the key to evolution itself. “It doesn’t grow, communicate or move at all under its own steam. Without a home it is inert. We know very little about it, except that it will start reproducing when it enters the atmosphere of a planet that suits it. Is it living? Is it dangerous? This may not sound like a plausible being, but it pretty much describes viruses, which replicate only when inside a host. Viruses may seem alien, but they are the most abundant and, arguably, the most important organisms on Earth.”
“Crossing Over” –Viruses Occupy an Odd Liminal Space
If there is one insight that the coronavirus pandemic has emerged about Planet Earth it is that there is much that we still don’t know about cohabitants of our own world —viruses, occupying an odd liminal space, not quite alive, but not dead either. They exist, reports Nautil.us, in what is effectively a hidden world, almost a ‘first Earth.’ “What we can’t see in the cosmos that is the best reminder of our limited vision, observes Natutilus. The pandemic has brought us closer than is comfortable to Darwin’s engines of selection.
Now, in a neat example life imitating art per Einstein, NASA is integrating advancements in the study of viruses into astrobiology, the study of life’s origins, evolution, and distribution in the universe, hoping to formulate new areas of research to advance our understanding of how viruses may have influenced the origin and evolution of life here on Earth, and perhaps elsewhere in the Solar System.
Pushing the Boundary of Life
We are pushing the boundary of what sort of life or what signs of life you could look for, says NASA’s Kathryn Bywaters. “There’s so much we don’t know. That mystery and intrigue is really what fascinates me, because it shows you that anything is possible.” Since the dawn of the Space Age, astrobiologists have worked to determine whether neighboring planets harbor life forms, particularly microbes like bacteria, archaea, and fungi. Now, NASA scientists are wondering if they left something out–and the search for extraterrestrial life has landed on viruses.
‘Sudden Appearance of Species”
Is evolution a gradual process, as Darwin believed, or can transnational change occur suddenly, in a violently brief time span, as suggested by Harvard evolutionary theorist, Stephen Jay Gould who argued in Ever Since Darwin that “the ‘sudden’ appearance of species in the fossil record and our failure to note subsequent evolutionary change within them is the proper prediction of evolutionary theory as we understand it. That ‘evolutionary ‘sequences’ are not rungs on a ladder, but our retrospective reconstruction of a circuitous path running like a labyrinth, branch to branch, from the base of the bush to a lineage now surviving at its top.”
Human Genome –A Genetic Radio
Gould’s vision is mirrored in terrifying story of Darwin’s Radio with science fiction, beating NASA to the punch. The title is a poetic description of the core element in the story—that viruses in our genome function as carriers of evolutionary messages—a genetic radio, viruses as transports for genetic information. In this prophetic hard-science work of near-future fiction, Bear’s heroine, molecular biologist Kaye Lang, unveils her theory that ancient diseases encoded in the DNA of humans can return to life–has become a chilling reality. The haunting proof is evidence: a “virus-hunter” has tracked down a flu-like disease that kills expectant mothers and their offspring.
“For years.” writes Bear, “I’ve been waiting for nature to react to our environmental bullshit, tell us to stop overpopulating and depleting resources, to shut up and stop messing around and just die. Species-level apoptosis. I think this could be the final warning—a real species killer.”
Recent NASA-sponsored astrovirology workshops amass interest from scientists spanning borders and levels of experiences, says Kathryn Bywaters, a scientist with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at NASA Ames Research Center. “It created a forum where people could express these ideas that they haven’t really been able to vocalize on the community level.”
Microbes, or organisms such as microscopic fungi, archaea, bacteria, and amoebas, occupy virtually every environment on our planet, and astrobiologists have long-considered the possibility of microbes living elsewhere in our solar system. Viruses, while not technically “alive”, writes Planet of Viruses author Carl Zimmer, vastly outnumber all living organisms on our planet tenfold. There are an estimated 10^31 viruses on Earth — if every virus on Earth were lined up end to end, that line would extend 100 million light years out into space.
A new, speculative COVID-19 conjecture proposes that the coronavirus came from space, a result of panspermia –the theory that life on the earth originated from microorganisms or chemical precursors of life present in outer space and able to initiate life on reaching a habitaible environment. This space virus theory has been the work of a group of researchers, notably Edward J. Steele and N. Chandra Wickramasinghe. This group has published ten papers on the topic since the pandemic began, but their paper from July 14th offers the most detailed argument, suggesting that COVID-19 arrived on a space rock–“a fragile and loosely held carbonaceous meteorite carrying a cargo of trillions of viruses/bacteria and other primary source cells” –spotted as a bright fireball over the city of Songyuan in North East China on October 11, 2019.
Fireball Over China
Although the Songyuan fireball was spotted over 2,000 km northeast of Wuhan, where the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, the authors offer the hypothesis that a different fragment of the meteor arrived in the Wuhan area.
While organisms in deep space would not be alive, as is true with Earth’s viruses, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe believed that space microorganisms might be able to reactivate if they arrived at a suitable planet, like Earth and found a host. In 1979, the astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and Wickramasinghe wrote of “Diseases from Space,” as the title of one of their books put it. They went on to suggest an interplanetary origin for several outbreaks, including the original SARS in 2003 and influenza.
There’s no evidence Coronavirus came from space, reports New Scientist— and the implications could be downright dangerous. “The theory is clearly just an attempt to make COVID-19 fit into the existing panspermia model — there’s nothing new or creative about that”.
“A Galaxy Full of Microorganisms”
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe conceived of panspermia while trying to explain the way in which interstellar dust absorbs light. They noticed that if the dust were composed of bacteria, this would produce the observed pattern of light absorption. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe eventually arrived at the idea of a galaxy absolutely full of microorganisms, present in comets and meteors as well as dust clouds.
While generally debunked throughout the history of science, panspermia –the sharing of life via meteorites from one planet to another, or delivery by comet–is getting new attention and a little more respect.
In this context, the question generally raised is whether Earth might have been seeded by early Martian life (if it existed). Mars, it is becoming increasingly accepted, was probably more habitable in its early period than Earth. But panspermia inherently could go the other way as well, or possibly even between solar systems.
MIT and Harvard –The Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes
A team of prominent scientists at MIT and Harvard are sufficiently convinced in the plausibility of panspermia that they have spent a decade, and a fair amount of NASA and other funding, to design and produce an instrument that can be sent to Mars and potentially detect DNA or more primitive RNA. In other words, life not only similar to that on Earth, but actually delivered long ago from Earth. It’s called the The Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes, or SETG.
“We haven’t looked for [extraterrestrial] viruses specifically before because we’ve just barely started to scratch the surface of understanding them on Earth,” says Bywaters. “Previous to now, the technology and the know-how and the understanding of viruses hasn’t been at a point that we could really extrapolate that to other planetary bodies.”
Virus Implies Life
“Assuming that viruses replicate the same way in all systems, detection of a virus would be an indirect detection of cellular life,” says Kenneth Stedman, a professor at Portland State University and co-chair of NASA’s Virus Focus Group, who says that finding a virus on Mars or Saturn’s Enceladus, or Jupiter’s Europa would be a revolutionary advancement in astrobiology.
The paradigm of Darwin’s Radio, reflecting Harvard’s Gould, “is that evolution proceeds by random mutations within the genome. These mutations alter the nature of the proteins or the other components expressed by our DNA, and are usually detrimental, causing the organism to sicken or die. Yet over deep time, and under changing conditions, mutations may also create novel forms that confer positive advantages.” The paradigm being a hitherto undiscovered mechanism whereby the genome takes control of its own evolution, somehow sensing the right time to bring about change.
In Bear’s prescient work, anthropologist Mitch Rafelson has made an astonishing discovery in a newly discovered ice cave in the Alps of the mummified remains of a Neanderthal couple and their newborn, strangely abnormal child. Kaye Lang, a molecular biologist specializing in retroviruses, has unearthed chilling evidence that so-called junk DNA may have a previously unknown purpose in the evolution of life. Christopher Dicken, a virus hunter at the National Center for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, is in pursuit of a mysterious illness, dubbed Herod’s flu, which seems to strike only expectant mothers and their fetuses. As the three scientists pool their results, it becomes clear that Homo sapiens is about to face its greatest crisis, a challenge coiled within our genes since before the dawn of humankind.
“Our Genome is Much More Clever than We Are”
“I believe,” Bear says through his heroine, Kay Lange, “that our genome is much more clever than we are. It’s taken us tens of thousands of years to get to the point where we have a hope of understanding how life works. The Earth’s species have been evolving, both competing and cooperating, for billions of years. They’ve learned how to survive under conditions we can barely imagine. Even the most conservative biologist knows different kinds of bacteria can cooperate and learn from each other—but many now understand that different species of metazoans, plants and animals like us, do much the same thing when they play their roles in any ecosystem. The Earth’s species have learned how to anticipate climate change and respond to it in advance, get a head start, and I believe, in our case, our genome is now responding to social change and the stress it causes.”
It makes sense to conclude with question “Who am I?” observes Carl Zimmer, author of Planet of Viruses, a question as old as Moses, suggesting that on a fundamental DNA level, each human being on Planet Earth is actually more virus than “I.”
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