Three new species of bacteria, which are not found on Earth and which are
highly resistant to ultra-violet radiation, have been discovered in the upper
stratosphere by Indian scientists. One of the new species has been named as
Janibacter hoylei, after the Distinguished Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, the
second as Bacillus isronensis recognising the contribution of ISRO in the
balloon experiments which led to its discovery and the third as Bacillus
aryabhata after Indias celebrated ancient astronomer Aryabhata and also the
first satellite of ISRO.
The experiment was conducted using a 26.7 million
cubic feet balloon carrying a 459 kg scientific payload
soaked in 38 kg of liquid Neon, which was flown from the National Balloon
Facility in Hyderabad, operated by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
(TIFR). The payload consisted of a cryosampler containing sixteen evacuated and
sterilised stainless steel probes. Throughout the flight, the probes remained
immersed in liquid Neon to create a cryopump effect. These cylinders, after
collecting air samples from different heights ranging from 20 km to 41 km, were
parachuted down and safely retrieved. These samples were analysed by scientists
at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad as well as the
National Center for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune for independent examination,
ensuring that both laboratories followed similar protocols to achieve
homogeneity of procedure and interpretation.
The Analytical Findings are Summarised as Follows:
In all, 12 bacterial and six fungal colonies were detected, nine of which,
based on 16S RNA gene sequence, showed greater than 98% similarity with
reported known species on earth. Three bacterial colonies, namely, PVAS-1, B3
W22 and B8 W22 were, however, totally new species. All the three newly
identified species had significantly higher UV resistance compared to their
nearest phylogenetic neighbours. Of the above, PVAS-1, identified as a member
of the genus Janibacter, has been named Janibacter hoylei. sp. nov. The second
new species B3 W22 was named as Bacillus isronensis sp.nov. and the third new
species B8 W22 as Bacillus aryabhata.
The precautionary measures and controls operating in this experiment inspire
confidence that these species were picked up in the stratosphere. While the
present study does not conclusively establish the extra-terrestrial origin of
microorganisms, it does provide positive encouragement to continue the work in
our quest to explore the origin of life.
This multi-institutional effort had Jayant Narlikar from the Inter-University
Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune as Principal Investigator and
veteran Scientists U.R. Rao from ISRO and P.M. Bhargava from Anveshna supported
as mentors of the experiment. S. Shivaji from CCMB and Yogesh Shouche from NCCS
were the biology experts and Ravi Manchanda from TIFR was in charge of the
balloon facility. C.B.S. Dutt was the Project Director from ISRO who was in
charge of preparing and operating the complex payload.
This was the second such experiment conducted by ISRO, the first one being in
2001. Even though the first experiment had yielded positive results, it was
decided to repeat the experiment by exercising extra care to ensure that it was
totally free from any terrestrial contamination.