Considering a synthesis of decades of study on a somewhat “out-there” concept involving viruses from space, it is reasonable to wonder how scientific we can be when speculating about the history of life on Earth.
The scientific fringe is simple to describe with terms such as “cracker,” “rogue,” and “maverick,” but then publications like this one, published in 2018, come along and left us blinking owlishly, uncertain of where to even start.
Approximately 33 individuals were identified as contributors on this review, which was published in August 2018 by the peer-reviewed journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. The journal has undergone peer review and has received a decent amount of attention. As a result, it is neither a tiny nor a specialized pay-for-publishing source.
Stephen Fleischfresser, a science journalist, delves into the backgrounds of two of the most well-known scientists engaged in the case: Edward Steele and Chandra Wickramasinghe, in particular. It is certainly worth your time to read it.
If you want the tl;dr version, Steele is an immunologist who has earned a reputation as an outlier for his evolutionary theories that emphasize the acquisition of gene alterations dictated by the effect of the environment above random mutations, which he refers to as meta-Lamarckism.
Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, has had a much less contentious career and is best known for experimentally validating Sir Fred Hoyle’s idea explaining the formation of complex carbon molecules on interstellar dust, which was previously rejected.
Wickramasinghe and Hoyle were also responsible for another space biology thesis, which happened to be written by Wickramasinghe. Only this one is based on more than simply the beginnings of organic chemistry; it is also based on the history of science.
On the surface, the Hoyle Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of Cometary (Cosmic) Biology is a very straightforward assertion that the route of evolution has been strongly influenced by biochemistry that did not originate on our planet.
The late Sri Lankan scientist Wickramasinghe said that “comets are the carriers and distributors of life in the universe, and life on Earth started and evolved as a consequence of cometary inputs.”
Wickramasinghe claimed that such inputs are not restricted to a liberal sprinkling of space-baked amino acids, but may include a variety of other ingredients as well.
It is more likely that they contain viruses that infiltrate organisms and cause their development to take unexpected turns in wholly different ways.
“Cause of Cambrian Explosion: Terrestrial or Cosmic?” is the headline of the paper, which draws on current studies to come to the surprising conclusion that a shower of extra-terrestrial retroviruses had a critical part in the diversity of life in our seas around half a billion years ago.
In the scientists’ words, “therefore retroviruses and other viruses believed to be freed in cometary debris trails both have the ability to introduce novel DNA sequences to terrestrial genomes and promote additional mutagenic change within somatic and germline genomes.”
Allow it to soak in for a second. Take a big breath before proceeding, since that was the easy part of the process.
As a result of this epoch, the cephalopod mollusks (which are characterized by the extension of their tentacles from under their shells), which branched out into a breathtaking diversity of sizes and forms in what seemed to be a fairly short time frame, first appeared on the scene.
They have a genetic makeup that is as bizarre as their species themselves; this is owing in part to their capacity to change their DNA on the fly, which allows them to exist alongside octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish today.
The authors of the research make the very daring argument that these genetic anomalies may be an indication of extraterrestrial life, which they believe is possible.
This time, though, it is the arrival of complete genomes that have been frozen in stasis before thawing out in our mild waters that is of concern.
“As a result, the probability that cryopreserved squid and/or octopus eggs traveled to Earth in ice bolides several hundred million years ago should not be dismissed,” the researchers said in their paper.
As part of his analysis of the study, medical expert Keith Baverstock from the University of Eastern Finland agreed that there is a lot of data that plausibly match with the H-W concept, including a strange timeframe for the advent of viruses.
That, however, is not how science progresses in the first place.
As Baverstock put it at the time, “I feel that this article supports skepticism about whether stand-alone explanations of the origin of life are scientifically valuable.”
“It is not the purpose to consider the weight of plausible but non-definitive evidence, no matter how significant it may be.”
Despite the fact that the concept is as original and interesting as it is controversial, nothing in the summary contributes to a deeper understanding of the history of life on Earth beyond previous conjectures, and it adds nothing of value to our current evolutionary model.
Even yet, with strong disclaimers in place, it is possible that science will be able to live with a healthy dose of lunacy now and again.
Denis Noble, the editor of the journal, acknowledges that “additional study is required,” which is a bit of an understatement.
However, considering the recent breakthroughs in the field of space-based organic chemistry, there is still room for debate.
“As the relevance of space chemistry and biology rises, it is acceptable for a publication dedicated to the interface between physics and biology to stimulate discussion,” Noble said.
“The theories will very certainly become tested in the future.”
In the event that the results of the testing support our suspicions, we advise that we be fully prepared for the return of our cephalopod overlords. We are not sure when they will ask for those eggs back.