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21 Jan, 2018 10:49

Killer viruses from outer space might be more common than we think – study

Killer viruses from outer space might be more common than we think – study

Could an alien virus arrive from outer space and wipe out the human race? It may sound like the plot of a B-movie, but an international group of scientists is now formally exploring the possibility for the very first time.

In a study published in the journal Astrobiology next month, the group sets out its belief that while NASA continues to focus its search for extraterrestrial life on the hunt for other alien microorganisms, space viruses remain critically under-researched. The team, led by biologist Kenneth Stedman of Portland State University, is calling for scientists to develop strategies to detect these viruses – and to see if they can spread to humans from outer space.

"More than a century has passed since the discovery of the first viruses," Stedman said in a statement. "Entering the second century of virology, we can finally start focusing beyond our own planet."

Viruses are infectious agents that replicate inside the living cells of other organisms. They can infect anything, from animals and plants to microorganisms like bacteria. The team behind the study believes that because more viruses exist on Earth than any other cellular organism, they should exist on other planets, too. The pursuit to find these astronomical agents has led Steadman, along with colleagues Aaron Berliner and Tomohiro Mochizuki from UC Berkeley and Tokyo Institute of Technology respectively, to create a new discipline in astrobiology known as “astrovirology.”

"With this paper, we hope to inspire integration of virus research into astrobiology and also point out pressing unanswered questions in astrovirology, particularly regarding the detection of virus biosignatures and whether viruses could be spread extraterrestrially," Stedman said.

Speaking to Gizmodo, Stedman tried to allay fears about the future discovery of viruses in outer space. “Viruses have a bad rap. If we find viruses on other planets it is an indication of life, not something to be scared of,” he said.