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AST 205.

01 IntroAstro

Cayman Clark

Term Paper

Date: 10/23/18

Panspermia, Possible Origin of Life?

Panspermia, or rather the idea that life on Earth originated from somewhere other than Earth,

has been a topic greatly debated over the years. This life is theorized to have come to Earth

either on interstellar space dust, or via an astral body colliding with Earth. Either of the two

would have contained microorganisms capable of surviving many factors that would otherwise

eradicate all living matter in order to propagate life on a planet other than its origin. Many

influential abiogenesists believe panspermia is not a very strong hypothesis for the origin of life

on Earth. Transversely, the many different factors life would need in order to exist are

paradoxical as many necessities cannot be created without the existence of another necessity.

So the idea of life spreading is much more hypothetical than the idea of life originating on Earth.

This research should include enough information on this topic to form an opinion on

panspermia, and may even promote further individual research of such an idea.
The idea of panspermia has existed since the 5th century BC as a philosopher by the

name of Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras theorized that the universe was made up of an infinite

number of seeds, these seeds gave rise to life forms; coining the term panspermia, meaning

“seeds everywhere”. Scientists throughout the years have theorized that life has existed

throughout the universe, as a sort of cosmozoa, that will continue to propagate life beyond our

existence. This “life” had to originate from somewhere, as relatively all physical things that exist

have cause to said existence. The creation of life is a very complex manner, as the creation of

self replicating genes require proteins and lipids that are thought to need genetic “building

blocks” in order to be synthesized, the odds of this synthesis greatly increase with the idea of

external biological material being introduced. A major proponent of panspermia, Chandra

Wickramasinghe, hypothesized that dust in interstellar space was largely organic, and that

organisms could continue to enter Earth’s atmosphere via this dust, which could give an idea as

to how such complex chemicals could be created. A few other hypotheses support the idea of

the transplanetary spread of life.

According to Robert F. Service, the complexity of abiogenesis has left researchers

pondering the many factors that lead to synthesis of biological materials. Robert F. Service, a

new reporter for ​Science​ writes about this complexity in an article titled Origin-of-Life

Conundrum. In order for DNA and RNA to be copied by modern cells, proteins are required to

carry out synthesis. In order for these processes to be carried out, they must be held within cell

membranes, or fatty lipids, which are synthesized by protein-based enzymes. With an already

quite complex process, the addition of the fact that these components were created via a

natural, unbiological, method is almost unthinkable. Many proponents of abiogenesis

hypothesize how the process began, whether it was through an “RNA World”, as RNA is able to
carry genetic information and take the role of a protein like catalyst, speeding up certain

biological reaction. Another theory is metabolism-first, or rather simple metal catalysts “created

a soup of organic building blocks that could have given rise to the other biomolecules” (Service

2015). There have been theorized routes to RNA synthesis with various chemical building

blocks. Chemists led by John Sutherland at the University of Cambridge UK reported that

acetylene and formaldehyde could “undergo a sequence of reactions to produce two RNA’s four

nucleotide building blocks” (Service 2015), but critics considered these chemicals to be complex

molecules themselves. Still looking to prove that these building blocks can be formed from

simple starting compounds, Sutherland and his colleagues looked for another route to

synthesizing RNA, and found success with hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, and ultraviolet

light; all three of which would have been plentiful in the early stages of Earth. Sutherland

continues to describe how not all required chemicals to produce RNA would have been present

at their syntheses, but could have collected in runoff. His team also argues that Earth was a

“favorable setting” for reactions such as these as HCN was abundant in comets, which rained

down steadily for the first several hundred years. H2S was also believed to have been common,

as was UV radiation that could drive the reactions catalyzed by metal-containing materials

(Service 2015). With a basis of how these compounds come to exist, it opens up further

inspection as to possible ways they could be transported to other terrestrial bodies.

Another proposed origin of these building block chemicals are meteorite impacts in

Earth’s early oceans. According to John Matson at ​Scientific American​, meteorites that struck

Earth’s primordial oceans could have supplied a significant amount of carbon, which is critical to

the life that existed at the time, and that these impacts could have synthesized foundations of

complex biological molecules (Matson 2008). Researchers at Nature Geoscience replicated the
impact of a chondrite striking the ocean at 1.25 mps, and the resulting pressures and

temperatures synthesized a variety of carbon based compounds, such as fatty acids and

amines. When ammonia was added to this combination of starting chemicals, glycine (a simple

amino acid) was created. These were only a few of the synthesized biological materials that

they analyzed according to Toshimori Sekine, though he also added that “it is unclear how much

or how many of these biomolecules would be needed to initiate life” (Matson/Toshimori 2008). In

order to ensure that these compounds were synthesized by the shock of the impact they

simulated, they used carbon 13, and found that the molecules detected were enriched with

carbon 13 instead of carbon 12, which rules out the possibility of outside contamination. Though

the impact could create these compounds, it is also stated that it could destroy generated

materials if the body is too large.

In an article written by John Matson on ​Scientific American​, he cites a NASA mission to

collect space dust from a comet named Wild 2 in 2004. The probe used a lightweight capture

material known as aerogel to soak up particulates and gas trailed by the comet. These samples

were then dropped to Earth about 2 years later and analyzed by the team’s researchers. They

discovered the amino acid glycine enriched with carbon 13, an isotope of the element that is

relatively rare on Earth, and according to Jamie Elsila, a cited researcher, it “indicate(d) that it

originated on the comet” (Matson 2009). Glycine is considered to be somewhat critical as it is

part of a subset of protein synthesizing amino acids. This comet originating amino acid could

imply that “building blocks for life” can be synthesized outside of a planetary atmosphere, thus

creating another source of aminos for a planet developing life. These objects could also

originate from other planets, and carry with them biological material. It is known that prokaryotic

and eukaryotic can survive in rocks dejected from the surface of a planet such as Mars and
survive reentry without raising internal temps to the point of lethality for said organisms

(Warmflash et al. 2007). These organisms are also able to survive outside of “hibernation” many

microorganism undergo, tucked deep inside of space rocks and make their way to other planets.

Through this transport mechanism, microorganisms and their fundamental chemical compounds

could make its way outside of a planet, and even a solar system, to spread the existence of life

and biological material to other worlds over the course of thousands to millions of years. An

estimated 1 ton of Martian rock enters Earth’s atmosphere yearly, and though many of these

meteorites existed in space for several million years, approximately one out of 10^7 Mars rocks

that impact Earth made the journey in less than a year, and 10 rocks larger than 100g make the

journey in only 2 to 3 years (Warmflash et al 2007). If early mars had the ability to create

building blocks for life, then it’s plausible that these chemicals made it to Earth via the latter

transport method. Future tests are being done via the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment

(LIFE), which would fly on the Russian Phobos Soil mission. LIFE would test the survivability of

ten species selected from bacterial, archaeal, and eukaryotic origins. These species will be

selected based on data from previous survivability experiments, and organism survivability in

extreme environments. This would include radiation resistance and the ability to metabolize

lithotropically (or from mineral materials) (Warmflash et al 2007).

Though there are many pro-panspermia ideas hypothesized, there are also many that

are against the idea. According to Caleb Scharf at Scientific American, states that natural

selection poses a threat to the idea of panspermia. Through natural selection and panspermia,

he states it is likely that “life driven by cosmic dispersal will end up being completely dominated

by the super-hardy, spore-forming, radiation resistant, chemical-eating, and long lived prolific

type of critters” (Scharf 2012). The diversity of our gene pool poses no advantage to this as we
evolve to adapt to a “stationary” environment, not and ever moving and infecting life that

panspermia implies. If this theory of panspermia is correct, there should be life just about

everywhere in our solar system, and everywhere outside of it. These ultra-tough life forms

should be able to survive everywhere and as such should survive everywhere. The fact that

these organisms have not been found doesn’t give the idea that panspermia is not possible, just

that we may not have been looking for these organisms in the right places (Scharf 2012). If it is

true that they do not exist in these areas, it does clearly indicate that panspermia is not true, but

that the transfer of these organisms via gravitational dynamics may be extremely inefficient, or

that the limit of biochemistry and molecular mechanics may have been reached (Scharf 2012).

An experiment done by scientists at the Centre of Molecular Biophysics in Orleans, France,

concludes that bacteria could not survive planetary entry on a meteorite. In stated experiment

they attached rocks to the heat shield of a Russian spacecraft, these rocks were contaminated

with a bacterium called Chroococcidiopsis, resembling a proposed germ on Mars. A researcher

in the experiment, Frances Westall, states that if Martian sedimentary meteorites carried traces

of past life, they could survive entry in our atmosphere, but the issue with panspermia is that the

amount of rock they used was not sufficient enough to protect the organisms (Sarfati 2008). The

entry speed of the spacecraft itself was 5-8 km/sec slower than normal meteorite velocities,

coming in at 7.6 km/sec instead of 12-15 km/sec. The temperature of the rock did not reach

temperatures that meteorites reach, and this experiment was decided by one of the lead

researchers to be inconclusive as rocks entering Earth’s atmosphere would be larger and thus

have more areas bacteria could survive entry (Sarfati 2008).

Panspermia has had quite a lot of controversy since it’s conception, and has had many

different aspects of it’s arguments proven and disproven. The origin of life has yet to be found,
and as such, will remain to be theorized until an idea is agreed upon. Though many components

of the argument of panspermia have been proven, many have yet to be tested, and tested

properly at that. The possibilities of the origin of life are endless, as in the vastness of the

cosmos, relatively anything could be possible.

Works Cited

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts | Published:

Friday, August 28, 2015. “Interstellar Seeds Could Create Oases of Life.”

Astronomy.com,​ 28 Aug. 2015,


Matson, John. “Rock and Roil: Meteorites Hitting Early Earth's Oceans May Have Helped

Spawn Life.” ​Scientific American,​ 7 Dec. 2008,


Matson, John. “Sample-Return Mission Pulls a Building Block of Life from a Comet.” ​Scientific

American Blog Network​, 18 Aug. 2009,



Sarfati, Jonathan. “Choose Country.” ​Creation.com | Creation Ministries International​, 10 Oct.




Scharf, Caleb A. “An Equation for the Origins of Life.” ​Scientific American Blog Network​, 11

July 2016,


Scharf, Caleb A. “The Panspermia Paradox.” ​Scientific American Blog Network​, 15 Oct. 2012,

Scharf, Caleb A. “The Panspermia Paradox.” ​Scientific American Blog Network​, 15 Oct. 2012,


ServiceMar, Robert F., et al. “Researchers May Have Solved Origin-of-Life Conundrum.”

Science | AAAS​, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 10 Dec. 2017,



Usra.edu,​ 2007, www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/phobosdeimos2007/pdf/7043.pdf.

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