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Space viruses could lead to discovery of extraterrestrial life

Even though viruses are more abundant than any other organism on Earth, there is still a lot to be learned about them. Researchers from Portland State University (PSU) are saying that one of the things that we still need to learn about viruses is whether or not they exist in space.

Study lead author Ken Stedman is a Biology professor and co-founder of the Center for Life in Extreme Environments at PSU. Stedman explained that since there are 10 to 100 times more viruses on Earth than any other cellular organism, this could also be the case on different planets and moons.

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

In their article “Astrovirology: Viruses At Large In The Universe,” the researchers suggest that finding viruses on other planets could be key in finding life there as well.

“Viruses arguably have coexisted with cellular life-forms since the earliest stages of life, may have been directly involved therein, and have profoundly influenced cellular evolution,” wrote the study authors.

“Viruses are the only entities on modern Earth to use either RNA or DNA in both single- and double-stranded forms for their genetic material and thus may provide a model for the putative RNA-protein world.”

The experts said that NASA and other space agencies should test for them in liquid samples from Saturn and Jupiter’s moons. They also recommended the development of technology that could detect viruses in ancient deposits on Earth and Mars.

“With this review, 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,” said the researchers.

The study is published in the journal Astrobiology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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