Professor Wainwright has recently discovered DNA in space with a DAPI stain, which is another important piece of evidence in favour of panspermia, the theory that life is raining down from space . If you are unfamiliar with the theory of panspermia and the contribution of Professor Milton Wainwright then I would recommend my previous blog article, it’s shameless self-promotion but I guess it works for Kanye West. Panspermia is the idea that life on Earth came from space. If you think this seems a little too sci-fi then you aren’t alone, the theory is extremely controversial and has been met with fierce criticism since it was first documented by the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras. Over the years it has been championed by several distinguished scientists such as Kelvin, Arrhenius, Hoyle and most recently Professor Wainwright.
Professor Wainwright of the University of Sheffield has made several discoveries that support the theory. The most notable of these include the ‘dragon particle’ (figure 1) the ‘ghost particle’ (figure 2) and the ‘titanium ball’ (figure 3). Previously it has only been possible to examine these entities through electron microscopy (EM) and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX) which provides data about the chemical composition. However, Professor Wainwright knows that the next step in convincing his critics is to find DNA in space, assuming that the space organisms share the same hereditary material as the rest of life on Earth.
Remember that time when you cried your eyes out as a kid after letting go of your balloon and watching it float away? No? Oh right that must just be me then. Well anyway, that’s essentially how Professor Wainwright samples the stratosphere for life. His current technique basically consists of a balloon and a CD drawer powered sampler (figure 4). By his own admission his technique is almost ‘too simple and cheap to find such amazing work’.
So why would we assume that life is coming in from space and not up from Earth? Well, according to Professor Wainwright there are three main reasons:
1.Firstly, ‘Physics tells us that nothing bigger than 5 microns can get up to these heights.’ This is due to a transitional barrier layer in the atmosphere between the troposphere and stratosphere called the tropopause 17km up.
2.Secondly, ‘On none of our samplers do we find pollen, if they were coming from Earth there would be pollen on our samples. What mechanism could sieve out pollen and just let our particles through?’
3.Finally, ‘Some of them form these impact events, if they were coming up from Earth they’d be fighting gravity. These particles are coming in at speed because they’re coming in from space. There’d be no impact event if they were coming from Earth’.
When these facts are taken together it’s hard to argue with Professor Wainwright’s conclusions and so far no convincing alternatives have been offered.
The last time I interviewed Professor Wainwright he told me that people often ask him ‘What about the DNA evidence?’ he replies ‘Well, we’ve been working on that, it’s very difficult, we’re talking about very small samples, one particle, and when we do the EM we cover them in gold.’ The fact that only ‘2-3 particles are collected on each launch’ means there is very little ‘material to work with’ making DNA testing difficult. However, in an exciting new development Professor Wainwright claims to have found DNA in space from a sample he previously dismissed.
The sample in question comes from a 2012 flight in India. It was obtained by earlier, more costly cryosampling balloons at a height of 41km and was initially considered by Professor Wainwright to be too large to be bacteria and dismissed. However, he later concluded that it was most likely ‘a particle mass’ of ‘nanobacteria that have come together in a clump’
The masses stained positive with a stain called DAPI (figure 5), and no, I’m not talking about the N-Dubz rapper or the cartoon duck. DAPI is a commonly used fluorescent stain that is often used in microscopy and testing for biofilms. Professor Wainwright says that ‘no one is arguing’ with the idea that a positive DAPI stain ‘proves the presence of a microbial biofilm and if we get a positive result it must be DNA.’ However, since the press release, he has already received criticism saying that ‘DAPI can sometimes stain artefacts’ giving a false positive for DNA. While he admits that ‘stains can sometimes stain things they aren’t supposed to be staining’ he claims this is an unfair ‘shifting of the goalposts’ and refutes the idea that ‘remarkable claims require remarkable evidence.’
Whatever your stance on panspermia, you have to admit, it’s difficult to argue with the evidence that Professor Wainwright brings to bear. He quotes Sherlock Holmes in the defence of his ideas saying ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ While I would say that I’m not entirely convinced by his ideas, I am certainly open to them, and to be honest I find it hard to fault his logic. While it’s wise to be sceptical of new and controversial ideas, everyone deserves to be given fair treatment within the scientific community.
Whatever you think about Professor Wainwright, one might wonder what motivates him to challenge the paradigm so drastically, well according to the man himself ‘The sheer privilege of being given this problem to solve is out of this world… No pun intended, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Sounds corny I know, but it’s what every scientist dreams of.’