Shortly after causing a media sensation, the discovery of fossilized bacteria in a meteorite was repudiated by the scientific community. Image: CC Niger Meteorite Recon/Wikimedia Commons

Last week the science world was abuzz when a paper was published claiming that fossilized alien bacteria was found in a meteorite. A NASA scientist, using a microscope to examine slices of a meteorite, said he found filaments and chemical compounds likely to be alien life. But the scientific community is skeptical of the alien fossil claims and questioned the credibility of the journal that published the findings.

Scientist sees fossilized bacteria in meteorite

The report on discovering alien life in a meteorite was penned by Richard Hoover, an engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Hoover broke small pieces from a famous meteorite called the Orgueil meteorite, a space rock that fell to Earth in southern France in 1864. The Orgueil meteorite is a rare type of meteorite called a carbonaceous chondrite — only nine have been found. He examined the pieces of carbonaceous chondrite under a powerful scanning electron microscope and observed filaments he said resembled fossilized bacteria called cyanobacteria. Hoover said the filaments also contained more carbon than the meteorite around them, implying they were once alive.

Meteorite bacteria backlash

Hoover submitted his paper on fossilized alien life in meteorites to the Journal of Astrobiology, which rejected it. Undaunted, Hoover sent his report to the Journal of Cosmology, a website advocating that life on Earth originated in space, which promptly published it. Fox News ran with the story on Friday, March 4. By Saturday, articles with sensational headlines about alien life appeared on all the major news outlets. By Monday, the research and the journal that published it were discredited by a legion of scientists. NASA, Hoover’s employer, issued a public statement refusing to stand by his work.

Scientific community kills the buzz, again

The most easily questioned aspect about Hoover’s report is the fact that cyanobacteria are photosynthetic organisms that need liquid water, oxygen and sunlight. The interior of a meteorite is absent of all those things. Scientists also scoffed at the Journal of Cosmology, a publication admittedly biased toward such a discovery. The Journal of Cosmology also published Hoover’s findings without first conducting the customary peer review. Claims of fossilized bacteria in meteorites have been made before. In 1996 a NASA researcher published a paper in the journal Science aboutĀ  fossilized bacteria in a meteorite that originated on Mars. TheĀ  report became a TIME cover story and was touted by the White House. Eventually, scientists killed the buzz, concluding that the fossils were simply striations in the rock that looked like bacteria.

Sources

Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2011/0307/Alien-fossils-found-in-meteorite-Scientists-urge-skepticism

Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-alien-life-20110308,0,5561322.story

NewScientist: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20222-alienlife-claims-spark-monster-mudslinging.html

NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2011/03/08/134348493/alien-microbes-attack-dangers-of-science-news-that-isnt-science-or-news

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