Are Viruses the New Frontier for Astrobiology?

A three-dimensional representation of a norovirus virion, based on electron microscopic imagery. Should astrobiologists also be considering virions and viruses when looking for life beyond Earth? Credit: CDC/Jessica A. Allen/Alissa Eckert
They are the most abundant form of life on Earth, but viruses — or their seed-like dormant state, known as virions — are outliers in our search for life on other planets. Now, one group of scientists is pushing for astrobiologists to consider searching for viruses beyond Earth more seriously.

By Sarah Wild |

Viruses are mentioned six times in NASA’s 250-page-long current astrobiology strategy, write the authors of a recent paper called „Astrovirology: Viruses at Large in the Universe.“ They call for the study of viruses to be incorporated into extraterrestrial science missions and astrobiological research at home, and have a checklist for the actions needed to put viruses on the interplanetary map.

„Viruses are an integral part of life on Earth as we know it,“ said study co-author Ken Stedman, a virologist at Portland State University’s Center for Life in Extreme Environments. If we are going to be thinking about life on early Earth or ancient or current life on other planets, we need to be thinking about viruses, he said. [6 Most Likely Places for Alien Life in the Solar System]

It has been more than a century since scientists discovered the first virus, and for decades it was known simply as a „very small disease-causing agent.“ Late Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar even referred to viruses as „a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein,“ Stedman and colleagues wrote in the study, which was published in February in the journal Astrobiology.

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