Science & Technology

This New Paper About the Origins of Life Has Biologists Cracking Up

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The past is full of mystery, and the further back you go, the more mysterious it gets. When you go all the way back to the very beginning of life on Earth, there's a lot of questions up in the air. Did we evolve on land or water? What was the first animal to have eyes? Is it possible that octopuses are aliens who came to Earth in frozen, interplanetary eggs? What, why are you all laughing at us?

A Cosmic Creation Comedy

In March 2018, a group of interdisciplinary scientists published a potentially groundbreaking paper that made biologists and zoologists all over the world sit up and pay attention ... and promptly start laughing. See, the thesis of this paper boils down to this: nobody knows why life got so diverse during the Cambrian Explosion, so it must have come from outer space. More specifically, octopuses are so strange compared to other forms of life on this planet, they must have some sort of extraterrestrial influence. Does that strike you as less than convincing? You're not the only one.

Then again, maybe that's not surprising. As Oxford University's Life Collections manager Mark Carnall put it, "23 authors and not one a zoologist. AND IT SHOWS YOU GUYS." Of course, that's only the beginning of Carnall's gripes — after a truly epic tweetstorm, he decided to collect his thoughts in a blog post. There are so many issues with the basic premises of the paper alone that it's hard to know where to start, but here's a good place: only one octopus, O. bimaculoides, has had anywhere close to its complete genome sequenced. As you might expect, the genome of that octopus does not closely match any other sequenced genomes — perhaps because, as we mentioned, there aren't any other octopuses that have had their genomes sequenced yet. But to the authors of this paper, that's enough evidence to suggest that the most plausible explanation for this "discrepancy" is that the first octopuses on the planet hatched from tiny eggs that traveled, frozen, through space for some unknown period of time. Sure ...

Actually, maybe we're not being fair. The paper only says that frozen space eggs are one of many possibilities. Another possibility? Space viruses, of course. What if — just hear us out here — a squid from Earth contracted a virus that came from outer space? Isn't it possible that that squid might give birth to an octopus? Well ... no. But it's a good recipe for making zoologists tear out their hair online. Just check out these reactions to "one of the best figures ... describing the origins of octopi from space viruses." Or as paleo-ecologist Seth Finnegan described it, "Collect underpants + Space Virus = Profit." Now that's just science.

Not His First Space Rodeo

If you scan the, ahem, controversial paper's author list, you might some familiar names — especially if you remember a few other legit-seeming claims of extraterrestrial origins from recent years. Many of them contain the name of one man: Chandra Wickramasinghe. A mathematician and astronomer, Wickramasinghe has "discovered" a lifetime's worth of proof for panspermia, the belief that life on Earth originated elsewhere.

Take this comet he described as being home to extraterrestrial microbes in 2015 — his colleagues didn't rank his work very favorably, to say the least. And just two years earlier, he made headlines for finding a diatom (a type of single-cell algae) high up in the atmosphere and claiming it must have come from outer space — despite the fact that he failed to investigate if A) the thing really was a diatom to begin with; B) the presumed diatom was similar or identical to one from Earth; and C) the diatom didn't originate from the ground in the first place. So yeah — we're going to hold onto our skepticism until Wickramasinghe produces a living, breathing, little green man.

For some views of the potential origins of life that strike a more satisfying mix of mind-blowing and scientifically based, check out Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink's "A New History of Life" (free with your Audible trial membership). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Are Humans Just Aliens? Panspermia Explained

Key Facts In This Video

  1. A small percentage of meteorites that have impacted Earth came from Mars. 03:15

  2. Necropanspermia is the idea that organisms needn't be alive after traveling through space and arriving on Earth for their genetic material to influence the evolution of life. 05:34

  3. NASA has to meticulously examine its equipment so that it doesn't inadvertently carry microbes into space. 06:55

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 4, 2018

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