EDITOR'S BLOG

'In space, no one can hear you sneeze,' say mythbusting virologists

By Dan Stanton contact

- Last updated on GMT

Rosetta's Philae lander successfully made the first controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus, specifically Comet 67P, on November 12
Rosetta's Philae lander successfully made the first controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus, specifically Comet 67P, on November 12

Related tags: Microbiology

There is no evidence that Ebola arrived on Earth from the stars, say a number of virologists, debunking media speculation that viruses had their origins in the Milky Way.

The European Space Agency successfully landed a robotic space probe on a moving comet this week, but as Rosetta's Philae lander begins to explore the surface of this heavenly body one astrobiologist believes the mission could unravel “evidence of our cosmic ancestry.”

Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director, Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology and Honorary Professor, University of Buckingham, UK, wrote in the Journal of Astrobiology & Outreach​ that “it is somewhat strange that references to life in comets appear to have been somewhat muted in the publicity covering today’s event,”​ and so Biopharma-Reporter.com took the opportunity to find out more about his theory, and how viruses – including the current outbreak of Ebola – could have come from the skies.

“Viruses are responsible for introducing new genes, new genetic information to evolving lines of plants and animals.  Without the steady input of viruses there would be no evolution in my opinion. We would not be here.”

“I think all viruses came from space at some time,”​ surviving by being freeze-dried and contained in cosmic dust, essentially keeping them immortal, he continued.

Pseudoscience?

While the origin of viruses is unknown, Wickramasinghe’ theory was described as “a load of rubbish”​ and “pseudoscience”​ by several virologists and microbiologists contacted by Biopharma-Reporter.com.

“There is no evidence that viruses came from comets - this is just speculation,” ​Ian Clarke, Professor of Molecular Microbiology/Virology at the University of Southampton told us. “Comets are in the news because of the Rosetta mission so this is just fanciful. It may be possible but seems extremely unlikely and I would place this as pseudoscience.”

Nigel Dimmock, a Professor of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, concurred, adding “it’s generally held that viruses have the same origin as other life forms or that they are degenerate molecules derived from cells that have become (semi) independent.”

Ebola

The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has led to some media publications searching for sensationalist headlines, such as UK tabloid The Daily Star’s ‘Ebola... The deadly virus from outer space causing misery on Earth’​ from August this year.

Similarly at the height of the Sars outbreak in 2003, The Guardian​ published Wickramasinghe’s research, while just last month The Daily Express​ regurgitated the theory that an as yet undiscovered virus “capable of WIPING OUT HUMANITY could land on Earth from space at any moment.”

Wickramasinghe told us the Ebola virus could have “established a persistent reservoir”​ on the Earth in animals or plants and continued to propagate by creature to creature spread after arriving from space. “Sudden increases in virulence of an endemic virus of this type could take place from internal mutational changes but also from the insertion of new viral sequences of external origin.”

Roger Grand from the University of Birmingham, who has written a number of papers on adenovirus virology, said, however, there is no evidence for this, further dismissing the theory as a “load of rubbish.”

“There are relatively rare viruses which are able to cross over occasionally from their natural host (fruit bats in the case of Ebola) and infect humans. With Ebola the infection occurs in small villages in west and central Africa where health care is poor or non-existent and so a serious outbreak occurs due to a combination of factors - very nasty virus, remote region, poor health care, lack of a vaccine etc. – not some mystery event.”

While it seems Wickramasinghe’s theory will continue to be rolled out by news agencies looking for 'unique' angles on viral outbreaks, Clarke concluded by telling us: “As a scientist, evolution is the only feasible explanation to describe how viruses arise.

“Since there is no evidence for things like other worlds, ghosts, god etc this is, in my opinion, all belief based nonsense and should not form the basis of a serious journalistic article.”

Related topics: Biopharma Culture, Bio Developments

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