Scientists warn alien organisms on Earth could become a reality stranger than fiction

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Scientists warn that without the right biosecurity measures, “alien organisms” on Earth could become a reality stranger than fiction.

Published in an international journal Biosciences, a team of scientists, including Dr Phill Cassey, head of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Adelaide, calls for greater recognition of the future biosafety risks of the space industry.

“In addition to government-led space missions, the arrival of private companies such as EspaceX means there are now more players in space exploration than ever before, ”Associate Professor Cassey said.

“We must act now to mitigate these risks. “

Space biosecurity concerns both the transfer of organisms from Earth to space (downstream contamination) and vice versa (backward contamination). Although research points out that at present the risk of exotic organisms surviving the trip is low, it is not impossible.

Dr Cassey said: “Risks that have a low probability of occurrence, but which can have extreme consequences, are at the heart of biosecurity management. Because when things are bad, they are really bad.

The research provides clear evidence of how humans have spread organisms to the most remote areas of land and sea, and even into space.

To address the risks of invasive species associated with space travel, the authors suggest that the emerging field of “invasion science”, which deals with the causes and consequences of the introduction of organisms into new environments, could offer valuable lessons. This includes the fact that island systems such as islands, lakes and remote habitats are the most vulnerable to invasion threats.

Other information that could be applied include protocols for early detection, hazard assessment, rapid response, and containment procedures currently in use in response to invasive species threats.

Dr Cassey said: “It is much cheaper to prevent biological contamination by implementing protocols on Earth than on ">March, for example.”

Dr Cassey and co-author Dr Andrew Woolnough of the University of Melbourne and the University of Adelaide suggest that with some of the best biosafety in the world, Australia is well placed to provide expertise in this area.

“We have a fantastic opportunity to contribute to international politics and develop biosafety mitigation measures that can be used by the growing private space industry. This is an untapped economic development opportunity, ”said Dr Woolnough.

Despite the value of space biosecurity, the authors say invasion biologists have not yet been involved in the Space Research Committee’s planetary protection planning. In the research, they argue that this should change because “greater collaboration between invasion biologists and astrobiologists would improve existing international protocols for planetary biosecurity, both for Earth and for extraterrestrial bodies that may contain life”.

To learn more about this research, read Scientists Warn Against ‘Alien’ Invasions, Need for Planetary Biosecurity.

Reference: “Planetary Biosecurity: Applying Invasion Science to Prevent Biological Contamination from Space Travel” by Anthony Ricciardi, Phillip Cassey, Stefan Leuko and Andrew P Woolnough, November 17, 2021, Biosciences.
DOI: 10.1093 / biosci / biab115


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