Influenza from Space? What'sNEW since 2000

The lethal wave of influenza in 1918-19... was first detected on the same day in Boston and Bombay. Yet in spreading within the United States it took three weeks to go from Boston to New York. — Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe (1)

One of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's more controversial claims is that influenza outbreaks are often caused by newly arriving viruses from space. Among several lines of evidence, they noticed that the worst flu epidemics coincide with peaks in the eleven-year cycle of sunspot activity. When an unusually vigorous flu epidemic again matched the pattern in January, 2000, they renewed the story in Current Science, a weekly journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences. In London, The Guardian covered the story (2), and a controversy erupted. Here is some of the ensuing discussion, 21-26 January 2000.


From Matthew Genge —

Hoyle and Wickramasinghe suggest that carbonaceous cometary particles with masses of 4x10^-15 g that are captured by the Earth could provide a flux of biomolecule-bearing particles at the Earth's surface of 10^25 particle per year. This assumes that the entire 40,000 t of the extraterrestrial mass flux is dominated by these sub-micron particles. Measurements of the mass distribution of micrometeoroids from microcraters on the LDEF experiment, however, suggest a maximum in the distribution at ~10^-5 g (~100 mm dust particle; Love and Brownlee, 1993 Science) and are consistent with the mass distribution of cometary meteoroid streams and sporadics described by Hughes (1989) NATO ASI. The mass of particles smaller than 4x10^-15 g entering the atmosphere suggested by these mass distributions is ~4 t or 10^21 particles a significant proportion of which, but not all, will be carbonaceous. Assuming there is no screening affect due to entry heating above 150C (even though the effective thermal emissivity of these 10 nm particles will fall well below that of black bodies) the abundance of particles is therefore very similar to the number of aerosol particles that Hoyle and Wickramasinghe suggest are produced by humans during a pandemic. The only difference is of course that the cometary particles fall all over the globe whereas those of human origin increase with population density enhancing the possibility of transmission.


From Andrew Glikson —

With reference to the ongoing "Panfluenza" and "Panspermia" controversy, can the above gentlemen clarify the following:

1. Has any of the cosmic dust and micro-meteorites collected by NASA spacecrafts around Earth, the Moon, Mars, Venus or anywhere else in the solar system, over the last 20-30 years or so, revealed any trace of evidence for the alleged cosmic viruses? If I am correct, some of these satellites are sterilised prior to despatch, to minimize terrestrial contamination, and some are equipped to analyse collected dust particles.

2. Would the authors care to comment on the distinct structure of amino acids found in carbonaceous chondrites - isobutaric acid (CH3)2CNH2COOH) and racemic isovaline (CH3CH2(CH3)CNH2COOH) (Zhao and Bada, 1989; Nature, 339:463-464). Whereas these molecules would form ideal tracers/markers of any such space-derived organic materials and viruses as may have reached Earth, as suggested by Hoyle and Wickramashinghe, they are in fact exceedingly rare on Earth and have been only observed in conjunction with extra-terrestrial impact deposits such as along the K-T boundary at Steve Klint, Denmark.

3. If the answers to these questions are in the negative, how are they rationalized in terms of Panfluenza and Panspermia?

Kind Regards, Andrew Glikson


From Bill Dillon —

I noted that the same CCNet issue that contained several notes on "Germs from Space" also contained notes about collecting meteorite dust from aircraft and comet dust from spacecraft.

Surely the controversial theory of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe could be refuted or affirmed by: 1) finding no viruses in the stratosphere (assuming one can collect them if they are there), or 2) finding viruses returned by Stardust (assuming no contamination).

Which brings up an interesting point. I've read that material returned from Mars will be treated as a bio-hazard, but what about material returned by Stardust (perhaps more aptly named Stargerms)?

Remind me to be far away from Utah in 2006....

Regards, Bill Dillon


Response to Matthew Genge from Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe

M.T. Genge's attempt to ridicule the possibility of cometary biomolecules influencing humans at the Earth's surface is regrettably flawed. The 40,000 tonnes of cometary debris reaching the Earth will not all be in the form of microgramme sized siliceous grains of the type considered by Genge. A fraction would inevitably be comprised of cometary organic particles that form part of the volatile outgassing of a comet. With an average mass per particle of some 4x10^-15 g, appropriate for small bacteria, the total number of bacterial/viral sized particles entering the Earth annually will be in excess of 10^25 . It should be noted that these particles are of such sizes that they would not be destructively heated whilst being stopped in the stratosphere. Thus some 10^25 or more bacterial/viral particles would be available annually for descent through the troposphere to serve as the nuclei of raindrops, and thence to fall to ground level. In a typical influenza pandemic with 10^9 people shedding some 10^11 viral particles each throughout an year, the total number of viruses exuded by humans will be 10^20 - several orders of magnitude less than the number of viral/bacterial particles from comets reaching the surface of the Earth.


Response to Matthew Genge from Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe

(1) Genge's reference to the mass spectrum of micrometeoroids is largely irrelevant for the organic particle flux from comets. Direct sampling of the dust from comet P/Halley showed increasing fluences of particles in the dust coma down to 10^-15 g, probably less (Simpson et al., A&A 187, 742, 1987). A dominance of submicron-sized particles in the interplanetary medium is also indicated by the excess ultraviolet component of the zodiacal light.

(2) We refer to our calculations on the heating of small grains as they enter the atmosphere (eg. in the Appendix to "Diseases from Space") to refute the point about heat-sterilization.


Response to Andrew Glikson from Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe

(1) No viruses/bacteria/volatile organic molecules would survive very high speed impact onto surfaces of the moon, satellites or spacecraft. Collected dust particles (IDP's) are mostly refractories with traces of trapped organics and interior organic structures in some instances.

(2) The amino acid content of carbonaceous chondrites, synthesised abiotically, is largely irrelevant to panspermia. It is the volatile component of cometary outflows that carry biological particles and biological molecules in our model. The biological amino acid influx would in any case overwhelm a trickle of non-biological amino acids because the biological molecules would be vastly amplified within cometary interiors. The fact that abiotic amino acids are rare on the Earth could mean that they always come within larger meteoroids that are all burnt up except in the rare situations such as an impact of a large object, e.g. the K-T boundary impactor.

Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe


26 January 2000, from Andrew Glikson

In their letter of 25.1.00 Hoyle and Wickmasinghe suggest "the biological molecules would be vastly amplified within cometary interiors", whereas in a communication to me of the same date Wickmansinghe writes: "The amino acid content of carbonaceous chondrites, synthesised abiotically, is largely irrelevant to panspermia. It is the volatile component of cometary outflows that carry biological particles and biological molecules in our model."

It is generally assumed, although to date not directly observed, that comets form loose aggregates including silicate blocks (possibly including carbonaceous chondrites), ice and vapour. In terms of Hoyle and Wickmansinghe's model, whereas the silicate blocks contain abiologic amino acids, the ice and vapour contain biologic amino acids (and possibly also viruses). Such proposed dichotomy in the composition of comets overlooks the dynamic interchange of volatiles between silicates (ie. the carbon in carbonaceous chondrites), ice and vapour, for example during near-sun grazing. Such interchange would hardly allow spatial separation of biologic and abiologic amino acids in vapour, ice and solids.

So far as "vastly amplified" molecules within cometary interiors is concerned, apart from an occupation of the interior of comets by abiologic amino acids contained in silicates, the authors will be aware that (1) the chance of amino acids combining at random into a protein molecule - the basic molecule of life - is 1 in 10^130 - a process likely to require favourable conditions (temperatures under 150 degrees celsius) as may exist on some planets, and (2) viruses, which contain either DNA or RNA (but never both) can not multiply on their own except as parasites within living organisms.

A clarification would be appreciated whether the authors accept the validity of Ockham's razor principle, namely that no more variables need be invoked in a scientific hypothesis than required by the evidence?

Andrew Glikson


WHY OCKHAM'S RAZOR FAVOURS PANSPERMIA THEORIES OF LIFE

From Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe

It is precisely the circumstance of the 1 in 10^130 - type chance of random assembly of a protein, cited by Glikson, that makes panspermia theories score over insitu generation theories of life. In our model it takes all the resources of all the stars in the Universe to get the first living system started, but once begun its continuity and propagation is assured. Comets mop up and vastly amplify a minute surviving fraction of bacteria from a presolar cloud. Of course DNA/RNA in comets could only amplify as components of cells.

Critics such as Glikson, who seem to have an unshakable conviction (prejudice) that panspermia has to be wrong, would be well advised to study all our writings first before profering ill-considered judgements.

Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe


What'sNEW

2014 Aug 9: Chandra Wickramasinghe recomends a link re: Ebola.
Kawasaki disease linked to wind currents, EurekAlert, 10 Nov 2011.
Christophe Fraser et al., "Influenza Transmission in Households During the 1918 Pandemic" [abstract], doi:10.1093/aje/kwr122, p505-514 v174, American Journal of Epidemiology, 1 Sep (online 11 Jul) 2011. "...Our findings of low transmissibility for 1918 pandemic influenza...."
Colin A. Russell et al., "The Global Circulation of Seasonal Influenza A (H3N2) Viruses" [abstract], doi:10.1126/science.1154137, p 340-346 v 320, Science, 18 Apr 2008. "...Newly emerged strains of the A (H3N2) subtype appeared in E-SE Asian countries, on average, ~6 to 9 months earlier than they appeared in other regions, with long delays to South America...."
Flu hotspot found in Asia, by Rachel Courtland, doi:10.1038/news.2008.759, NatureNews, 16 Apr 2008.
Is SARS from outer space?, by Lauren Compton, CNN.com, 23 May 2003.
Did SARS come from outer space?, by by Charles Choi, UPI Science News, 22 May 2003.
2003, April 23: SARS from space?
2002, June 27: See a brief reply from Paul Morgan.
Doctors baffled by schoolchildren's sudden rash, by Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press, Nando Media, 15 Feb 2002. "Students in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Oregon and Washington state have complained about rashes on the face, arms, legs and body.... "For something like this to occur almost simultaneously in different parts of the country is, to my knowledge, unprecedented," said Dr. Norman Sykes, who examined about 30 suburban Philadelphia students who came down with the rash this month." Also see Michael Rubinkam, Mysterious rash hits school kids here, across U.S., The Associated Press, carried in The Seattle Times, 16 Feb 2002.
2001, March 5: Influenza epidemics are four times more likely during solar maxima.
2000, July 2: See a followup reply about whooping cough from Stephen Senn.
Comets a possible source of BSE?, by Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle, The Times (London), 5 December 2000.
Panspermia Causing Trouble?, by Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle, Space Frontier Foundation, 1 December 2000.
1998, April 26: See an exchange about whooping cough with Stephen Senn.

References

1. Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, "The Dilemma of Influenza," Current Science from the Indian Academy of Sciences, [preprint], submitted 21 January 2000.
2. Stuart Millar, "Flu comes from outer space, claim scientists," The Guardian, London, 19 January 2000.