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Biologists counter claim on extraterrestrial microbes

New Delhi, Dec. 3: Indian biologists have challenged the stunning claim by eminent Indian astronomer Jayant Narlikar and his British collaborators that they have found extraterrestrial micro-organisms high in the earth’s atmosphere.

An Indian-British team led by Narlikar, director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, had reported detecting micro-organisms in air samples collected by balloon from an altitude of 41 km above Hyderabad city.

The researchers say they have found two kinds of bacteria in the high-altitude air samples. One belongs to the Staphylococcus family of bacteria that sometimes cause throat infections in humans.

The discovery has been accepted for publication by the European scientific journal Microbiology Letters.

But scientists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, who had themselves analysed half of the 16 air samples returned by the balloon, say there was no evidence of micro-organisms, let alone extraterrestrial ones.

“We could not find anything at all,” said Pushpa Bhargava, former director of the CCMB, who was chief co-ordinator of the microbiological investigations in the balloon experiment conducted last year. “There was no evidence of any living material,” he said.

The balloon had on board an air-sampling device designed by the Indian Space Research Organisation. This machine sucked in air from different altitudes during the balloon’s ascent, storing the samples into sterilised bottles whose contents were analysed on return.

The experiment was aimed at testing the decades-old and controversial concept of panspersmia that says life on earth was seeded from space, and that the earth may be under a constant hail of micro-organisms from space.

University of Cardiff astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe, who, with the late British astronomer Fred Hoyle, had contributed to theories of panspersmia during the 1970s, was one of Narlikar’s collaborators in this experiment.

The analysis was divided between the CCMB and the UK team. Narlikar said that at a meeting at IUCAA in August this year, another British collaborator from the University of Sheffield presented his analysis to Bhargava and a CCMB scientist who had analysed the Indian samples.

“At no stage did Bhargava or the CCMB scientist express any doubts about the findings,” Narlikar told The Telegraph.

However, Bhargava asserts that he had pointed out that confirmatory tests had to be conducted before any claims were made and publications were sent out. He says the samples analysed by the Sheffield team may have been contaminated during the analysis. “On what basis are they claiming that they might be extraterrestrial organisms' There is not a shred of evidence to support that,” Bhargava said.

The biologists say that to establish that the organisms are indeed extraterrestrial, elaborate gene sequencing tests need to be conducted. The scientists had decided to exchange the samples at the CCMB and the UK laboratory and repeat the tests, but this has not been done so far.

The IUCAA-Sheffield-Cardiff team, however, says that the bacteria they have detected are “not common contaminants and have never been used in any of the laboratories involved in these studies”.

Narlikar says he hopes to have another balloon flight if the money can be raised for conducting such an experiment.

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