DNA Survives a Trip into Earth’s Atmosphere

Panspermia. Look it up.  It sounds more like science fiction than science fact, but imagine the implications.  It is the idea that life is everywhere, and is seeded throughout the universe by comets, asteroids, meteors, rogue planets, and even spacecraft, by way of unintended contamination of microbes.  It could also explain why there is life on Earth.

Because we still know so little about the Universe around us, panspermia is considered a plausible scenario.  To test parts of this theory, a team from the University of Zurich’s Institute of Anatomy used small pipettes to actually place double stranded DNA on the outside of the TEXUS-49 research rocket as it flew into space and back.

The mind blowing part is that the DNA survived.

TEXUS-49 rocket launch from the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden. Credit: Adrian Mettauer

Not only was the DNA found on all the application points of the rocket upon landing, but it was able to transfer its genetic material to surrounding cells afterwards.  This means that one of the most difficult parts of the panspermia theory has been proven plausible.

“This study provides experimental evidence that the DNA’s genetic information is essentially capable of surviving the extreme conditions of space and the re-entry into Earth’s dense atmosphere,” says study head Professor Oliver Ullrich from the University of Zurich’s Institute of Anatomy.

The experiment, known as DARE (DNA atmospheric re-entry experiment), was a last-minute idea by Ullrich and his colleague Dr. Cora Thiel, who were already using the TEXAS-49 rocket to study the role of gravity in the regulation of gene expression in human cells.  They wondered if they could test the survivability of the DNA molecules and their biosignatures on the outside of the rocket.  “Biosignatures are molecules that can prove the existence of past or present extraterrestrial life,” explains Dr. Thiel.

How often does material from outer space actually hit us? Space is so large, how could enough material move around the cosmos to ensure this seeding process? The material is certainly there.  Around 100 tons of dust and meteorites collide with our planet every single day, and over Billions of years, maybe some extraterrestrial DNA has made it here.

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