Bangalore: Indian scientists have discovered three new bacteria that can resist ultraviolet radiation about 40km above the surface of the earth—a finding that could throw light on the origin of life on the planet.
These three types of bacteria —which do not match any species on earth—were found in samples collected through a balloon sent up to the stratosphere in April 2005.
This layer of earth’s atmosphere receives heavy ultraviolet radiation that is harmful to almost all life on earth and typically kills bacteria.
“There is life 40km above earth. That itself is a discovery,” said Pushpa M. Bhargava, former director of India’s Centre for Cellular and Micro Biology (CCMB). “The chances are that they are disease-resistant micro-organisms that can spread over continents.”
New heights: The balloon carrying scientific payload which discovered new bacteria 40km above earth.
The balloon sent up to the stratosphere was the second effort by India after a maiden venture in 2001. It contained probes that collected air samples at different heights ranging from 20km to 41km above the earth’s surface.
The experiment was conducted by a team led by Jayant Narlikar, founder director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, and Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), Bangalore.
Narlikar was not reachable for comment.
The current belief is that ultraviolet radiation inhibits growth of any living system, said C.B.S. Dutt, project director from Isro. “Based on the origin of life theory, some of these organisms may be coming from an extraterrestrial source, or it could be mutants that have emanated from the various earthly processes,” he said.
Though the experiment does not conclusively establish the extraterrestrial origin of microorganisms, it does provide positive encouragement to continue the work in a quest to explore the origin of life, a statement from the country’s space agency said.
The three bacteria have been named Janibacter hoylei after astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who promoted the theory that life evolved in space; Bacillus isronensis that recognizes the contribution of India’s space agency in the balloon experiments that led to its discovery; and Bacillus aryabhata after India’s ancient astronomer who postulated that the earth revolves around the sun.
“This is totally an Indian experiment. We should have at least one balloon experiment every year over the next 20 years,” Bhargava said. “Then we can find how much variety of life is there up in space.”