When it comes to theories on how life began on Earth, there’s quite a high degree of disagreement. Aside from the belief that some glowing bearded man or flying spaghetti monster blinked His eyes and made everything suddenly appear, many scientists are now looking into the panspermia hypothesis. This theory suggests that life came to Earth on a meteorite, asteroid, or other planetoid that crashed into our planet and seeded Earth with living organisms or at least the building blocks necessary for the evolution of organisms.
Many microorganisms have indeed recently been found to be able to survive the harsh conditions of outer space for long periods of time, lending some credence to the panspermia theory. Of course, there are still other problems to address before this theory can be confirmed, but that’s where a new experiment suggested by NASA-funded scientists comes in. At the recent Breakthrough Discuss conference, several Breakthrough Starshot scientists discussed plans to send human DNA throughout the universe in hijacked bacteria to test the panspermia theory. You might know Breakthrough Starshot as the group planning to propel postage-stamp-sized spacecraft throughout the galaxy by shooting lasers at them.
At a panel titled “Scientific Goals and Instrumentation for a Flyby of the Nearest Stars,” Breakthrough Starshot developer Philip Lubin says that human DNA could fly to other worlds on such a craft and that his team already has NASA funding for their panspermia project:
A part of our program — at least on the NASA side, because we haven't cleared this with Breakthrough yet — is actually to put organisms to sleep, in stasis mode. And there are certain organisms known as C. elegans, which we’re going to embed human DNA into and send them out and then awaken them on arrival. However, I expect that will be a highly controversial thing to do.
Uh, yeah. It will. NASA and other space agencies are very careful not to contaminate other worlds with Earth germs, going so far as to slam their spacecraft and satellites into other planet’s atmospheres in order to incinerate them once they’ve reached the end of their lifespans. By proposing to send our DNA throughout the cosmos, these scientists essentially want to play at being gods.
I find some serious problems with this suggestion. First of all, who are we to say that our DNA should propagate throughout the universe? Such an experiment could have completely unknown side-effects that could be disastrous for other worlds. Maybe our DNA will take hold and (over eons) create another race of beings which will wipe out the indigenous life on whatever piteous planet it lands on. Or, that DNA could just spend eternity hurtling through the cold, empty vacuum of space only to burn up in some alien world’s atmosphere. The point is we don’t know. Which means this experiment is probably better suited to the domain of science fiction.