≡ Menu

Directed Panspermia: Seeding the Galaxy

Panspermia, the idea that life might travel through space to seed other planets and even other star systems, is a fascinating topic for conjecture, and our understanding of the survival of various forms of life in extreme environments only adds to its appeal. But just as SETI has an active counterpart that seeks to send rather than simply receive interstellar messages, so panspermia has its own advocates for a new kind of mission: To seed the stars from Earth. A group called SOLIS (Society for Life in Space) has sprung up around the notion. Its goal:

To propagate our family of organic Life throughout the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond. We propose to seed young planetary systems in star-forming interstellar clouds. We shall design and launch directed panspermia missions carrying the microbial representatives of Life by the year 2050.

So says the SOLIS Web site and so says society coordinator Michael Mautner, who is a research professor in chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University. Mautner has in the past worked with solar sail expert Gregory Matloff on propulsion systems that would make it possible to seed new solar systems and has written up the idea for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Now he offers a new paper for the Journal of Cosmology that focuses on what he believes to be our obligation to proceed with directed panspermia, ensuring that life does not come to an end.

Panspermia as Obligation

In a short article at Physorg.com, Mautner states his premise:

“We have a moral obligation to plan for the propagation of life, and even the transfer of human life to other solar systems which can be transformed via microbial activity, thereby preparing these worlds to develop and sustain complex life. Securing that future for life can give our human existence a cosmic purpose.”

The idea is that once we have identified planets with conditions suitable for life (and protoplanetary situations where life might one day develop), we should send organisms to seed these worlds as a way of accelerating local processes of evolution. Even the arrival of such a payload onto a comet or asteroid in a distant planetary system could pave the way for its eventual transportation to a habitable planet by local panspermia, in much the same way that material from Mars has occasionally made its way to Earth.

From accretion disks and interstellar clouds to planets identified by Kepler as being in the habitable zone of their stars, the list of targets should be extensive. The propulsion challenge is less of a problem than you might think, for Mautner is in no hurry to get there. Solar sail methods might take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years to deliver their payload, but the idea is long-term survival of life. Capsules containing about 100,000 microorganisms each and weighing 0.1 micrograms would be the delivery mechanism.

Ethics Among the Stars

All of which leads us to the ethical dilemma. How do we choose our targets so as not to disturb already existing life? Mautner considers this in his paper (internal references omitted for brevity):

Can panspermia missions perturb existing extraterrestrial life? At present, there is no conclusive scientific evidence for extraterrestrial life; though admittedly not all scientists share this opinion… Every living cell needs thousands of complex components as DNA, proteins and membranes, and the probability of these components coming together to originate life may be very small even on billions of planets…

If we still detect extraterrestrial life, we can avoid these targets. In any case, we can target new solar systems where life could not have evolved yet. We may seed a few hundred new solar systems, that will secure the future of our family of gene/protein life but will leave all the other hundred billion stars in the galaxy and their possible indigenous life unperturbed.

Yes, we can target locations where life is not likely to have already evolved, but how accurate can our assessments be given the constraints of current observational technology? Moreover, even that approach leads to potential problems. Panspermia assumes movement of life’s building blocks and even life itself through space. Seed a planetary system with life and it could be millions of years before that life moved from an asteroid in the system to a planet in the habitable zone, one that in the interval had developed life forms of its own. We can never be sure we are not displacing local life.

Mautner thinks even this scenario is not a showstopper:

If there is local life there that is fundamentally different, it will not be affected; if it is gene/protein life, it may be enriched and we can induce higher evolution. The new biospheres may prepare the way for human colonization if interstellar human travel becomes possible.

Which Life Survives?

But I’m thinking that sending cyanobacteria to other star systems to consume toxins and pump out oxygen is a dangerous form of meddling because it assumes that forms of life related to our biosphere are the ones that should survive. Ian O’Neill has an amusing but pointed take on this in a recent post:

If our life takes hold of a planet where another life had the opportunity to evolve into an interstellar civilization in a couple of billions of years time, wouldn’t we be in violation of some kind of cosmic anti-monopoly regulation (or at least in violation of the Prime Directive)?

And there’s another thing to ponder: What if “life” is the universal equivalent of some kind of infection. Is life rare because the universe has a very strong immune system? Firing our genetic code far and wide could be considered to be biological pollution.

I’m all for spreading the human influence around the galaxy, but I think this can only be considered if we physically go to these alien worlds, to evaluate these places in person before we start setting up home. Blindly sending life from Earth to habitable worlds and planet-forming accretion disks seems a little reckless, especially as we have no clue about the consequences if we started impregnating unsuspecting planets.

As we await results from Kepler and more from CoRoT, we still have no realistic assessment of the number of terrestrial planets around stars in our galaxy, nor do we have spectroscopic data that can tell us whether or not such worlds bear life. Is the meaning of life wrapped up in self-propagation, as Mautner’s paper suggests? If so, then pushing life from our biosphere outward is simply fulfilling our basic purpose.

But perhaps there is more to life, including the ethical responsibility to let life take its own directions in those niches where it has already taken hold. I’m not persuaded by a panbiotic ethics that doesn’t take into account the huge gaps in our knowledge about how and where life may form.

The paper is Mautner, “Seeding the Universe with Life: Securing Our Cosmological Future,” Journal of Cosmology Vol 5, (January, 2010), pp. 982-994 (available online).


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Brig February 17, 2010, 20:35

    Why bother, our esteemed scientists all think that life here was seeded from the cosmos. Whereever that seed came from didn’t just seed here but everywhere, I’d think. So wouldn’t we just be carrying coals to Newcastle, so to speak.

  • Ron S February 17, 2010, 23:16

    “Why bother, our esteemed scientists all think that life here was seeded from the cosmos. ”


  • Eniac February 18, 2010, 0:00

    …our esteemed scientists all think that life here was seeded from the cosmos.

    A few perhaps, but far from all….

  • Dave February 18, 2010, 10:15

    This is an extremely bad idea.

    We have ZERO experience studying extraterrestrial biology. We’ve yet to have the benefit of a sample return mission from another solar system. We have never studied any form of life other than the particular form that happened to evolve on our own planet. And we’ve barely scratched the surface trying to understand even our own biochemistry.

    So how can someone be so blindly egotistical as to think they can determine in advance which of our bacteria would or would not prove harmful to some form of alien life that we know nothing about?

    Imagine if EARTH were the recipient of such a “gift” from a alien world, and you got infected/infested with an organism whose biology was so alien to our own, that neither modern medicine nor your own immune system had any chance against it!

    But infection/infestation is not required to do damage, just the “harmless” metabolic products could prove deadly!

    For example, some have claimed this would be OK as a head-start on terraforming, or to eliminate toxins and generate oxygen.

    But what if that was done to us, except the aliens’ definition of “terra” was more like the atmosphere of Venus? ;)

    Or instead of oxidation, their metabolism was based on fluorination, so rather than oxygen, their microbes filled our atmosphere with lovely hydrogen fluoride gas?

    Or perhaps Carbon Dioxide is toxic to them, so they “seed” our planet with a microbe to eliminate it, with a metabolism that consumes it utilizing atmospheric nitrogen…
    CO2 + N2 ==> NO2 + CN
    producing harmless (to the aliens) Nitrogen Dioxide and Cyanide gases!

    Because nothing says springtime fresh on Vega 5, better than a beautiful brown sky, and the sweet smell of almonds in the air!

    Consider how an alien race would react, when one of our “care packages” lands on their world. Rather than realize that we had deliberately infected their world with an alien organism because we were complete IDIOTS, they would be more likely to conclude a deliberate aerosol dispersal was an INTERSTELLAR BIOWARFARE ATTACK!!!

    It was recommended that we avoid targeting planets if we detect signs of life, but if it is truly alien life, then how do we know what to look for?

    Another suggestion was to target fairly “new” planetary systems, where life has not had time to evolve yet. But for alien life, how long is that? We only have one example, for our planet’s variety of carbon-based life, and we’re not even sure about that one!

    And for civilizations that had gone the next step and were sending people instead of bacteria, wouldn’t such new worlds (assuming they had the decency to make sure they were empty first – something we need to do BEFORE infecting an alien planet) be considered “prime real estate” for colonization?

    Until their colony is hit by a bio-attack when we decide to “seed” several hundred of these planets, based on our arrogant assumption that we are the only species capable of space travel!

    This whole proposal seems rooted in the pre-Copernican-Revolution philosophy that the Earth is the center of the Universe, that man has been divinely anointed as the supreme life form with dominion over all others, and that he has a God-given right to do with the rest of the Universe as he pleases.

    I am sure that the rest of the inhabitants of the cosmos (whomever or wherever they are) would strongly disagree!

    Unfortunately for us, if one of our “bio-invasion packages” lands on an inhabited planet and accidentally destroys them, the sort of civilization that would be most likely to be able to survive such a planetary catastrophe (i.e. – technologically advanced enough to colonize other planets and/or interstellar travel), would also be the most capable of retaliating against us!

    “Time to dust-off the ol’ Relativistic Catapult, and get rid of that pesky “Earth”!

    Not that any of their neighbors would complain if they did retaliate, as from a galactic perspective, wanton infection of not just one, but SEVERAL HUNDRED planets with an alien organism (as this proposal suggests we do), with complete disregard for any existing lifeforms, would likely be considered akin to a interstellar war crime.

    Colonization of our species to other uninhabited worlds is a reasonable form of self-propagation. But engaging in what is in essence biological terraforming, without even any regards to indigenous lifeforms, on literally hundreds of alien worlds, worlds we may never even visit (let alone decide to colonize), is the height of arrogance.

    Of course, this proposal also puts a whole new spin on the Drake equation –

    “How many life-sustaining planets can we randomly infect, before one of them decides to take us out??!”

  • ljk February 24, 2010, 9:07

    Life-like evolution in a test tube

    Cosmos Feb. 21, 2010


    Scripps Research Institute
    scientists have synthesized RNA
    enzymes (also known as ribozymes)
    that can replicate themselves
    chemically without the help of any
    proteins or other cellular
    components. Many scientists believe
    that early life was based on RNA and
    predated the arrival of life based
    on DNA and…


  • Jefuhr August 15, 2010, 20:53

    One solution to the dilemma of potentially contaminating preexisting biota on a target planet is to task the delivery vehicle with assessing the target planet for the existence of life when it arrives in the target planet’s vicinity. Give it a “brain” and detection strategies. If the original target planet shows signs of life, set a new course to an alternate planet. As a second protection measure, the “seed’s” release after arrival onto the surface should be delayed until a second assesment is conducted. And of course a self-destruct option should be installed. Further insurance could be had by leaving some marker or rudimentary “inoculation history” prominently orbiting the target planet in case the seeding needed to be…”reversed.”

  • ljk November 17, 2010, 4:11

    Zombie Alien Viruses May Underlie Life on Earth

    November 10, 2010, 13:35 GMT| By Tudor Vieru

    A new twist in an established theory argues that all life on Earth may have developed from the remains of dead alien viruses, that arrived here on comets and other space impactors. This is a new form to the old idea of panspermia, which says that life did not originally develop here.

    Some experts now believe that viruses from outer space made their way here the same way water did, by hitching a ride on comets and asteroids. They may have not survived the reentry process or the harsh conditions of early Earth, but none of that is really relevant.

    It could be that, even after dying, the viruses still contained sufficient information to allow for life as we know it to appear and subsequently develop. This idea is gaining increasing numbers of adepts every day.

    Full article here:


  • David Fiori, Jr. January 12, 2011, 1:03

    What is wrong with subjecting the universe to the Darwinian principles of the survival of the fittest? If we don’t do it who is to say another country or company won’t? Moreover, who is to say every alien in every distant world with intelligent life wouldn’t enter their life form into such a galactic contest? Given how many worlds with intelligent life there must be, I am sure our earth has already been bombarded with new life forms disseminated by such alien civilizations. Add to that the natural forces at work: large asteroid collisions may well be mother nature’s favorite delivery system. It seems to me that if you believe panspermia is possible, and if you consider the extreme number of more primitive life forms that must exist throughout the universe, then mother nature alone may well have been subjecting the entire universe to a game of survival of the fittest for billions and billions of years already.

    Panspermia must include more than just one kind of bacteria. Perhaps a smorgasbord of organisms are appropriate to be sure that they have some hope of establishing a full biological life cycle.

    Perhaps we should wait until DNA synthesis and DNA expression are completely understood. Then, with advanced computer modeling and the ability to synthesize DNA if may well be possible to engineer a primitive life form that would likely survive such a journey and that would be more likely to thrive in a broad range of environments. With that future engineering capability that organism could also include the complete set of human genes. One possibility would program that organism to change as it multiplied and divided. Perhaps it could be programmed to enable sub sets of the human genes one at a time with the final result being human after some large number of such enabling generations. I am not sure how the organism could differentiate between male and female, if it couldn’t perhaps there would need to be a male and a female genesis organisms.

    Other organisms engineered to produce creatures that could participate in a food chain might also be included in the biological shipment.

    The point of these imaginations is that 2050 is too soon to make a concerted effort to enter our genes into the universe. My fear is that we might not be advanced enough to make a viable entry in such a cosmic contest until 2100 or so.

  • ljk February 9, 2011, 2:05

    Viva Panspermia!

    Authors: N. Chandra Wickramasinghe (Cardiff University, Cardiff UK)

    (Submitted on 22 Jan 2011)

    Abstract: The arguments for panspermia as a mode of origin of life on Earth are far from dead; on the contrary they are now more robust than ever.

    Comments: 5 pages, no figures, for Observatory Magazine

    Subjects: Cosmology and Extragalactic Astrophysics (astro-ph.CO)

    Cite as: arXiv:1101.4295v1 [astro-ph.CO]

    Submission history

    From: Carl H. Gibson [view email]

    [v1] Sat, 22 Jan 2011 15:22:57 GMT (136kb)


  • ljk June 2, 2011, 14:32
  • Josh J. December 4, 2011, 22:39

    Since when do ethics trump Universal survival?

    I completely agree that mankind has a moral obligation to undertake whatever means possible to initiate seeding of the universe.

    And once I get my rockets back from the shop I’m going to make damn sure it happens.