Could the blueprint for life have come from space? Yes, according to an experiment carried out by molecular biologist Cora Thiel and space biotechnologist Oliver Ullrich at the University of Zurich. The team daubed DNA into the surface crevices of a European space rocket and found much of it survived re-entry intact. Their astonishing results were published recently in PLOS ONE.
Are they believable? “Well, maybe… ”, says astrobiologist Penelope Boston, who is also director of the Cave and Karst Studies Program at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. “One would have to try and replicate these conditions in a laboratory. This finding will stimulate people to do that.”
“That DNA is so durable is a great surprise,” says Malcolm Walter, founding director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology. For Walter, the findings are consistent with the idea that life in our solar system could first have developed on Mars, spreading to Earth at a later date.
While simple organic molecules such as amino acids are known to survive interplanetary journeys buried inside meteorites, it is more surprising that a complex molecule such as DNA would have a chance. Tough bacterial spores are incinerated as meteorites burn in the Earth’s atmosphere. But DNA is a hardy molecule. Held together by multiple hydrogen bonds in a stable helix, it has shown astonishing durability – for instance surviving 38,000 years in dry bones in a cave in Croatia to reveal the entire genome of a Neanderthal.
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