July 16, 1990

Article at Reuters

Clouds of bacteria swirling through space, says scientist

An infrared image of dust in our galaxy

By Wilson da Silva

SYDNEY - Our universe may be filled with germs, an international astronomy conference was told on Monday.

Astrophysicist Gurcharan Kalra of India’s University of Delhi told a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Sydney that interstellar dust, prevalent throughout the universe, may be brimming with bacteria and minute plants.

He said samples of light from regions near the centre of our galaxy closely resembled light passed through E. Coli bacteria and through tiny sea plants called diatoms.

This suggests that warm regions of space rich in dust may also be filled with bacteria and other simple forms of life.

Although Kalra at first thought the concept “obviously absurd”, the correlations between the two sets of light were so close that he could not discount the data outright, he said.

Suggestions that vast clouds of bacteria exist in space were first made by British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle in 1982. However, his research was largely ignored by scientists who baulked at the idea of a universe filled with germs.

To put the issue to rest, Kalra set out to debunk Hoyle’s theory but found the results harder to deny than he first thought.

Taking infra-red images of dust in the GC-IRS 7 region of our Milky Way galaxy, as Hoyle had done, and comparing them with a graph of E. Coli bacteria heated at 350 degrees Celsius (630 degrees Fahrenheit), the estimated temperature of some of the dust in that area, Kalra found the two graphs to be very similar.

“The agreement between the observed and the predicted fluxes (results) is indeed quite striking,” he told astronomers at the meeting. Hoyle’s data cannot be dismissed, he added.

Kalra told Reuters he will next seek to replicate Hoyle’s bacterial data, and try and match the data with light samples from other dust-filled regions of space.

He said astronomers have relied on similar light experiments to explain much of the universe, and cannot now dismiss the same method when it appears to support an unpopular conclusion.

“All this information comes to us from the same light. If we get this information from it we should not reject it. It is also a lesson for me – I should not have looked at it with the idea that this is rubbish to be quickly disproved,” he said.