A group of scientists in Britain have claimed to have found tiny organisms in the Earth's atmosphere that came from outer space. The team, from University of Sheffield and Buckingham University, described the find in the clouds as potentially being "revolutionary" and might possibly "completely change our view of biology and evolution".
According to a news report from the University of Sheffield, the team was led by Professor (Hon. Cardiff and Buckingham Universities) Milton Wainwright, from the University’s Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.
During this summer's Perseids meteor shower, the scientists had sent a specially designed balloon about 17 miles (27 kilometers) into the sky. The balloon had been designed by Chris Rose and Alex Baker from the University of Sheffield’s Leonardo Centre for Tribology. It was brought back down and landed safely.
While in the stratosphere, a container designed to collect samples did so at both 13 and 16 miles up.
The fragments found with the balloon were too large to have come from Earth, the scientists said. The Telegraph reported these fragments were from a single celled algae known as a diatom.
"Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km," said Professor Wainwright. "The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip."
The team emphasized careful handling had been done and there was no way the balloon could have gotten contaminated after it was brought back down to Earth.
"In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space, life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here," Wainwright said.
These claims have not come without a high level of controversy [for example see this Slate report and this Discovery News report]. Critics argue storms and other natural processes could have brought the organisms into the stratosphere. And they say a lack of expert examination of the diatom was performed before rushing to publish, along with questions of insufficient evidence the life forms do indeed are extraterrestrial ones.
The group's findings were recently published in the Journal of Cosmology with additional follow up reports expected.
Critics also pointed out previous questionable reports that have appeared in the Journal of Cosmology and that the journal itself is questionable, as a Huffington Post report notes.
Looking at various media reports, it appears no one is disputing the possibility of life in outer space, but what is being questioned in this case is reportedly a lack of concrete evidence. Few in the scientific community are going to be quick to jump to conclusions based what they describe as speculations. They say there could be other explanations as to how the diatom managed to get into the stratosphere from Earth.
"As there is no known mechanism that could carry these diatoms to such a high altitude (such as a volcanic eruption, for example), “the diatom fragment … must most plausibly have come from space.” In other words: we don’t know where they came from… therefore, you know… aliens!," wrote Discovery News.