Three new species of bacteria, which are not found on the earth and are highly resistant to ultraviolet radiation, have been discovered in the upper stratosphere, about 40 km above the earth, by Indian scientists, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This has led to speculation that they may be of extra-terrestrial origin.
While one of the species has been named Janibacter hoylei after astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, the second has been christened Bacillus isronensis, recognising the ISRO's contribution in balloon experiments which led to the discovery. The third has been named Bacillus aryabhata after the Indian astronomer.
An ISRO statement in Hyderabad said, ''The precautionary measures and controls operating in this experiment inspire confidence that these species were picked up in the stratosphere. 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.''
The experiment was conducted using a 26.7 million cubic feet balloon and carrying 459 kg of scientific payload soaked in 38 kg of liquid neon. The balloon was flown from the National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad and operated by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. The payload consisted of a cryo-sampler containing 16 sterilised stainless steel probes.
Throughout the flight, the probes remained immersed in liquid neon to create a cryo-pump effect. After these cylinders collected air samples from different heights, ranging from 20km to 41km, they were parachuted down and retrieved.
The samples were analysed by scientists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, and the National Centre for Cell Sciences (NCCS), Pune.
In all, 12 bacterial and six fungal colonies were detected. Of these, three bacterial colonies were totally new species and highly resistant to ultraviolet radiation.
A three-year-long study of the samples led to the detection of these new species, and nine other bacterial and six fungal colonies.
''Next we should probe the stratosphere to clinch the answer on how such organisms exist at such heights,'' says former ISRO chairman U V Rao, who was one of the mentors of this experiment.
In Pune, astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar said the focus now would be on determining the origin as well as the nuclear characteristics of the three new species. As principal investigator, Narlikar headed the team of scientists from ISRO as well as biology experts from the NCCS and CCMB.
''Our purpose behind the present experiment was to look for micro-organisms at a height several km above the earth's surface,'' Narlikar said. ''We succeeded in doing so at a height of 41km, which is the maximum height the balloon could go.
''We now have an interesting situation that leads us to the next mission - to see whether the new bacteria came from outside earth or got tossed up from the earth.''