(Updated) Ancient Alien Bacteria Discovered in Meteorites?

Published on March 6th, 2011 | by

March 6th, 2011 by

evidence of alien bacteria found in CI1 meteoriteIn a startling discovery by NASA astrobiologist Richard Hoover, ancient bacteria fossils have been found in a rare class of meteorite — called CI1 carbonaceous chondrites — and will surely set the astrophysics/cosmology community (and the world) abuzz with excitement and controversy.

Hoover claims evidence of bacterial microfossils “similar to cyanobacteria” (a form of blue-green algae which sustains most of the Earth’s oxygen supply). The tiny fossils were discovered in fractured slices of three different CI1 meteorites (named Alais, Ivuna, and Orgueil) and are estimated to be up to 10 billion years old.

Anticipating counter claims of Earthly contamination of the fractured slices, Dr, Hoover asserts that the prokaryote (primitive microbes lacking a nucleus) bacteria-like  fossils are indeed indigenous to the meteorites and are “fossilized remains of living organisms which lived in the parent bodies of the meteors” (or other astral bodies such as comets, small moons, etc.).

Using an imaging technology called Environmental (ESEM) and Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy (FESEM), Hoover investigated the internal surfaces of the CI1 Carbonaceous meteorites, and subsequently produced images of large complex filaments. According to the paper abstract:  “They exhibit features (e.g., the size and size ranges of the internal cells and their location and arrangement within sheaths) that are diagnostic of known genera and species of trichomic cyanobacteria and other trichomic prokaryotes such as the filamentous sulfur bacteria.”

X-ray image of multiple=

Hitachi FESEM Secondary Electron Detector image at 1000 X of multiple filaments and sheaths embedded in Orgueil meteorite matrix

Hoover subjected the microfossils to an additional technique called Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) , results of which indicate that the meteorite filaments are typically carbon rich sheaths infilled with magnesium sulfate and other minerals characteristic of the CI1 carbonaceous meteorites — providing further evidence that the fossil microbes are from the meteorites (or their parent bodies) and not the result of terrestrial contamination.*

Hoover is no astrobiological “cowboy’ prone to making controversial claims; he is a respected NASA scientist with a history of important contributions to the field.

The implication of all of this is that Life is potentially everywhere , or anywhere, in the universe, and that Life on Earth may have come from other planets.

However, if this evidence is confirmed, then it also affirms that life is just as likely to evolve here on Earth, too. Earth is a planet rich in biotic forms due to its hospitable geochemical and climatic conditions. And, bacteria are robust organisms capable of adapting and even thriving in extreme conditions (so -called extremophiles) such as in  the anoxic,  sulfur-rich environs of deep sea thermal vents, or even high saline conditions one mile below an Antarctic glacier.

Further, these fossils — if confirmed — will not provide a new biogenesis model, that is, an explanation of how life evolved in the first place; they merely shift the origin question into the depths of space.

Still, the discovery is astonishing and (potentially) revolutionary to the search for alien life in the cosmos.

Details of the discovery were published in the Journal of Cosmology late Friday night, along with an invitation to the world’s astrophysics and astrobiology communities to review/critique/confirm the data. Results of these critiques will be published in an upcoming (late March) edition of the journal.

* The fragments were subjected to a third analysis as well (quoting from the abstract): “The δ13C and D/H content of amino acids and other organics found in these stones are shown to be consistent with the interpretation that comets represent the parent bodies of the CI1 carbonaceous meteorites.”

UPDATE: As predicted, this “discovery” is earning no little skepticism, mostly regarding the lack of “respectability” of the journal, and, the confusion over images of bacteria (taken from Earth) used as comparisons to the alleged “alien bacteria”. This author notes also that, curiously, the imaged bacteria/microbes look remarkably well-preserved for having endured billions of years in a meteorite. For a brief criticism of this paper and research, check out the scienceblog post: Did scientists discover bacteria in meteorites? by PK Myers

Or, better yet, continue reading my follow-up commentary: In Search of Ancient Alien Microbes & the Origin of Life

Top Image: Ivuna CI1 meteorite filament (0.8 μm diameter) with dark lines C, partially encased in thin carbon-rich sheath.

Credits:  FESEM and EDS imaging – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

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  • Well, folks…as predicted, this claim/discovery is being met with a great deal of skepticism, most of it aimed at the lack of respectability of the journal, but also at the confusion on EM images of bacteria (some of which are of Earth bacteria) used as comparisons (as one commenter already pointed out).
    Please check the UPDATE note in the original article with a link to a critique of the paper.

  • Tom

    I’m going back to the first argument, the thing has been on earth for over 200 years and there has to be some bacteria on it. and another question its from space there could be some kind of radiation that mutated it.They seem to also have a lot of knowledge about this thing so if its so strange how do they know so much. and one last thing and that is the gov is planning to cut a lot of spending to NASA so could just be another hoax to keep their money coming?

    • Tom: thanks four your comment.

      Given the hype and possible retraction surrounding the (alleged) arsenic metabolizing bacteria from a highly basic lake bed that a NASA scientist announced last year….I would suspect that they would not so quickly encourage one of their most prestigious scientists to rush publication without extensive analysis first, since this could, if wrong, embarrass NASA and HURT its chances for more funding. This is a big gamble. NASA has better chances of increased funding from pursuing ways to redirect large asteroids away from Earth, than encouraging another “little green men” (or microbes) hunt (that’s why SETI is now an independent entity, it could no longer be justified economically).

      The fact that the meteorites may have been here for 200 years, does not explain/account for the fossilized condition of the microbes. In fact, because we know a good deal about the life cycling of bacteria here on Earth, it can be surmised that the microbes achieved a fossilized state long, long before their (200 year old) impact with Earth.

      But I tell you what: let’s wait and see what the scientific consensus is….If Hoover is wrong, then it’s a big WRONG. If he’s right (or if they find it inconclusive as to origins) then it’s a REALLY big RIGHT…it’s pretty exciting ain’t it?

      • Tom

        a little but I’m pretty sure its wrong. I’m a christian so I’m kinda biased if you know what i mean. but really i think as long as its in question more funding will come. its gonna be interesting that’s for sure

  • Johnny

    I believe it to be ten times easier to criticize or find another “what if”. I think it’s partly due to us as a whole actually kind of enjoying the thought that we are the only form of life in a vastness that is incomprehensible to us. I think even if a more complex organism from space landed in our laps, our arrogance would disprove it’s existence anyway.

  • Oh well now that’s just GREAT. Some one is gonna get infected with this bacteria. BOOM! Z-Day approaches.

  • Ben

    While interesting, the paper is full of embarrassing mistakes that cast doubt on the overall level of scholarship. For example, it contradicts itself by claiming that a certain image is from one of the meteorites, then saying about a page later that the same image is from a terrestrial bacterium. There are also many misspellings, grammar errors, and missing labels. None of these mistakes are crucial to the arguments the paper makes, but the same sort of sloppiness in the actual research would render it too dubious to be taken seriously.

    • Ben

      You’ve got a good eye for details, thanks. And I would agree that if similar sloppiness is found in the research, then this would not bode well for confirmation. Still, Dr. Hoover is a highly respected scientist; he may have rushed the paper to publication without his editor (even scientists need editors!).

      I hope that this is not the case with the actual research. I will be following this story as the days progress. Stay tuned.

  • MIKE

    Gosh, you must be psychic! I was thinking this exact thought when I found your comment.

    I think the scenario is plausible, however, I would add that these CI1 chondrites are quite rare (only 9 have been found), and thus, given the countless meteorites flying around up there, the odds against an earth-originated meteorite finding its way back to earth are quite large. Plus, the paper makes mention of an age estimate (for the chondrites) as being 10 billion year old — older than the age of the earth.

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  • How do they know this meteorite is from outer space? It could have been blasted off the earth , and fallen back down.

    • One of the fragments in question was recorded to have fallen in the late 1800’s. It was seen falling in the sky when found

      • I don’t think you understood him. It could have been blasted off the Earth billions of years ago, and fell down in the 1800’s. Precise dating could make that a possibility. Which means that this would simply be early Earth life.

        • Tesla (speaking of the 1800’s): thanks for your comment, and, I certainly did understand what Mike said/meant, and, I agreed that it is a plausible scenario. However, you don’t seem to be considering my point, that is, if the Earth was impacted by a large meteorite billions of years ago, exploding vast amount of debris into the atmosphere (and presumably through the atmosphere back into space), with some small percentage of this debris maybe containing these forms of bacteria (or similar forms; the morphology described is now considered “similar”, not identical), which were then preserved (morphologically) for another few billion years, before then ending up in one of three (out of nine total known) chondrites of this type found on Earth….and that”s not even considering how all of these microbe look-alikes — coming from different habitats (on Earth)– would all be found in the same meteorite (or one of the three, again)…and, well, you begin to see that the odds of this happening are fairly remote….

          Still, I am not disagreeing with you completely…just looking at the odds.

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