In a study published in the journal Astrobiology the group of scientists sets out its belief that while NASA continues to focus its search for extraterrestrial life on the hunt for other alien microorganisms, space viruses remain critically under-researched. The team, led by biologist Kenneth Stedman of Portland State University, is calling for scientists to develop strategies to detect these viruses – and to see if they can spread to humans from outer space.
“More than a century has passed since the discovery of the first viruses,” Stedman said in a statement. “Entering the second century of virology, we can finally start focusing beyond our own planet.”
Viruses are infectious agents that replicate inside the living cells of other organisms. They can infect anything, from animals and plants to microorganisms like bacteria. The team behind the study believes that because more viruses exist on Earth than any other cellular organism, they should exist on other planets, too. The pursuit to find these astronomical agents has led Steadman, along with colleagues Aaron Berliner and Tomohiro Mochizuki from UC Berkeley and Tokyo Institute of Technology respectively, to create a new discipline in astrobiology known as “astrovirology.”
“With this paper, we hope to inspire integration of virus research into astrobiology and also point out pressing unanswered questions in astrovirology, particularly regarding the detection of virus biosignatures and whether viruses could be spread extraterrestrially,” Stedman said.
Speaking to Gizmodo, Stedman tried to allay fears about the future discovery of viruses in outer space. “Viruses have a bad rap. If we find viruses on other planets it is an indication of life, not something to be scared of,” he said.
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He said: “Over history and evolution lethal viruses have suddenly appeared and disappeared, there is no way they could have originated from Earth.
“What is more plausible is they have entered the atmosphere having been carried by comets before having devastating impacts.
“It is possible that a virus could arrive on Earth and trigger a devastating pandemic or even wipe out humanity, this is the scale of what we think we are dealing with.
“This has already happened during the evolutionary process, it is what is likely to have happened to the dinosaurs.
“We have evidence that bacteria and other organisms exist in space and rain down onto Earth, we believe the same is true of viruses.”
He said the deadly HIV virus, discovered just 30 years ago having come apparently from nowhere, could be extra-terrestrial in origin.