Life From Other Planets?
Reported January 2007
SAN MARCOS, Texas (Ivanhoe Broadcast News) -- What started as a chance of a lifetime was shattered by tragedy. Microbiologist Sandra Becerra and her classmates watched as their experiments went up on Space Shuttle Columbia in January 2003 ... And again as they fell to earth when Columbia broke apart.
"Whenever I turned onto the news and realized what happened, I was very upset, very devastated," Becerra, of Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, tells Ivanhoe.
Microbiologist Robert McLean, Ph.D., was Becerra's professor. They were experimenting with anti-gravity effects on bacteria. They believed the experiments were lost with the shuttle. Then something unexpected happened. Their payload was spotted in a newspaper.
"That was our first hint that it had survived," McLean says.
Their bacteria didn't survive, but something else did.
Becerra says, "Basically the three different bacteria ... were not recovered in the experiment. However there was a different, distinct microorganism."
The organism was bacteria, possibly picked up before Columbia lifted off. It endured 385-degree heat. Its survival gives new credit to a controversial theory.
"There is a theory called panspermia which basically states life on one planet can move to another. It has been equated with origins of life, it may or may not -- I don't know," Dr. McLean says. This is not the first case supporting this theory. In 1996, microbiologists claimed to find bacteria on a meteorite from mars in Antarctica.
"This just adds pieces to the puzzle of potentially supporting panspermia," McLean says. But there are arguments against it. "If you take the notion that life was only created on earth approximately 5,000 years ago, then something that doesn't fit that tight definition, it is, of course, suspect."
...And while it may be suspect to some, the notion that we're not alone still fascinates others.
McLean's experiment actually started out as an 8th grade science project for some local students. They originally wanted something very large sent up, but because of limited space they opted for McLean's idea of sending up something very light.
The American Society for Microbiology contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.
Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:
Bob McLean, Ph.D.
Department of Biology
Texas State University
San Marcos, TX
American Society for Microbiology
Washington, DC 20036-2904
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