“Science news: Octopuses came to Earth from space as frozen eggs millions of years ago”. That bizarre headline kept repeating itself in my Twitter feed overnight, as multiple people tweeted or retweeted the link. One glance at the source though told me all I need to know -- it was from the Express, a news outlet that I try my best never to link to here on the Grail, because they seem to have a habit of trawling the internet for obscure, unproven theories and posting them as ‘news’.
But then I started seeing the same story from more trustworthy science news sources -- “Viruses, ET and the octopus from space: the return of panspermia”, read the headline at Cosmos, and it cited a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology co-authored by 33 researchers from a wide range of reputable universities and research institutes:
[T]he paper makes a seemingly incredible claim. A claim that if true, would have the most profound consequences for our understanding of the universe. Life, the paper argues, did not originate on the planet Earth.
The response? Near silence.
The paper itself, which is available online (PDF), explores a couple of evolutionary mysteries and attempts to solve them using the theory of panspermia -- the idea that life has spread throughout the universe via comets, asteroids, etc.
One focus of the paper is on complex retroviruses that emerged at or just before the Cambrian Explosion around 500 million years ago, which are known to be associated with major evolutionary genomic processes. A second focus is the “remarkable” evolution of intelligent complexity in the cephalopods, like the octopus. And it ties these two anomalies together by using “micro-organism fossil evidence contained within meteorites, as well as the detection in the upper atmosphere of apparent incoming life-bearing particles from space” to conclude that life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilized ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity an
d which has led to the emergence of mankind.
It is the second focus -- explored in section 13 of the paper -- which has made headlines in the media, from crappy tabloid newspapers to genuine science magazines. The researchers here note that octopuses appear to have suddenly diverged genetically from their ancestors, making a sudden “great leap forward” -- “its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible bodies, instantaneous camouflage via the ability to switch color and shape are just a few of the striking features that appear suddenly on the evolutionary scene.” After discussing some of the genetic data, the researchers then suggest that these genetic ‘jumps’ “seem to be borrowed from a far distant “future” in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large.” But they’re not just talking about a virus traveling to Earth from space -- they instead, amazingly, suggest the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should n
ot be discounted as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago.
Yes, you heard that right: 33 scientists wrote a paper in which they suggest that octopuses might be aliens. As might be expected, the push-back against the paper from scientific skeptics has been strong. At Pharyngula, biologist and (usually obnoxious) skeptic P.Z. Myers, ridicules the claims made by the researchers. While he concedes that “there are novelties in cephalopod evolution”, he also points out that they are “not unique to cephalopods”, and as such “you can’t use it as evidence an outer space origin for the octopus”.
Furthermore, Myers says, “there is no reasonable justification” for the extraordinary claim that octopus eggs may have come to Earth in icy bolides. If this were true, he says cephalopods would represent an entirely novel lineage, and more than having a few molecular novelties, they would be completely unrelated to any other animal lineage on the planet. They would not be related to other molluscs. They would not be protostomes. They would not be eukaryotes. They would be totally alien.
Myers’ post is also -- as usual -- filled with character attacks on the researchers (most notably, panspermia pioneer ChandraWickramasinghe), but his points on the science of octopus evolution appear to be well made. As for other scientists, the response seems to be mixed -- but for most, there’s plenty of interest in the paper, even if they find it difficult to swallow the idea of octopuses being aliens.
Perhaps the best summary is the response to the paper, published in the same journal issue, from decorated virologist Karin Moelling of the Max Planck Institute Molecular Genetics, in Berlin: “This article is useful, calling for attention, and it is worth thinking about, yet the main statement about viruses, microbes and even animals coming to us from space, cannot be taken seriously.”
So, definitely worth a read -- especially if you’re interested in speculative/fringe science -- but bring plenty of grains of salt.