Bangalore: Indian scientists have discovered three new species of bacteria in the upper atmosphere. The bacteria, highly resistant to ultra-violet radiation, are not found elsewhere on Earth, leading to speculation on whether they are extra-terrestrial in origin.
The Indian Space Research Organisation announced on Monday that the bacteria had been found in the upper stratosphere.
“All the three newly identified species had significantly higher UV resistance compared to their nearest phylogenetic neighbours. One of the three, identified as a member of the genus Janibacter, has been named Janibacter hoylei, the second Bacillus isronensis, and the third Bacillus aryabhata,” ISRO said in a release.
“While the present study does not conclusively establish the extra-terrestrial origin of micro-organisms, it does provide positive encouragement to continue the work in our quest to explore the origin of life,” it said, adding: “The precautionary measures and controls operating in this experiment inspire confidence that these species were picked up in the stratosphere.”
Janibacter hoylei is named after the distinguished Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, Bacillus isronensis in recognition of ISRO's contribution in the balloon experiments, which led to its discovery and Bacillus aryabhata after India's celebrated ancient astronomer Aryabhata. India's first satellite was also named after Aryabhata.
The release said the experiment was conducted using a 26.7 million cubic feet balloon carrying a 459 kg scientific payload soaked in 38 kg of liquid neon.
The balloon was flown from the National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad, operated by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). The release did not give the date when the balloon was flown.
“The payload consisted of a cryosampler containing 16 evacuated and sterilised stainless steel probes. Throughout the flight, the probes remained immersed in liquid neon to create a cryopump effect. These cylinders, after collecting air samples from different heights ranging from 20 km to 41 km, were parachuted down and safely retrieved.
“These samples were analysed by scientists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad as well as the National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune for independent examination, ensuring that both laboratories followed similar protocols to achieve homogeneity of procedure and interpretation,” it said.
The experiment detected 12 bacterial and six fungal colonies, nine of which showed greater than 98 percent similarity with known species on Earth. “Three bacterial colonies were, however, totally new species,” the release said.
Jayant Narlikar from the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune was the principal investigator and scientists U R Rao from ISRO and P M Bhargava from Anveshna supported as mentors of the experiment, the release said.
“This was the second such experiment conducted by ISRO, the first one being in 2001. Even though the first experiment had yielded positive results, it was decided to repeat the experiment by exercising extra care to ensure that it was totally free from any terrestrial contamination,” ISRO said.