NASA Should Start Looking For Viruses On Other Planets, Scientists Suggest

A crecent moon is seen near the planets Venus (C, bottom) and Jupiter (R) in this rare alignment December 1, 2008 from New York. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Forget about aliens, let's start searching for viruses in our Solar System. Although scientists have been studying the infectious agents for decades, there's still much to be learned about them and whether they exist in space or not. Now, a group of scientists are proposing we seek more answers.

"[Viruses] are believed to have played important roles in the origin and evolution of life," biologists from Portland State University (PSU) wrote in a paper published in the journal Astrobiology. "However, there is yet very little focus on viruses in astrobiology."

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NASA scientists who study astrobiology explore three main questions, "How does life begin and evolve? Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?" according to the space agency's 2015 Astrobiological Strategy. But, viruses are vaguely mentioned throughout the plan, therefore, PSU researchers have proposed we further explore "astrovirology."

Study author Kenneth Stedman, a biology professor at PSU, and his colleagues recommend NASA and other space agencies start their search for viruses by examining liquid samples from Saturn and Jupiter's moons.​

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Additionally, the team suggests that they develop tools to discover viruses in ancient deposits on Earth and Mars, and examine whether the particles could survive in space.

"We need to further develop current tools, either put [an electron microscope] on a spacecraft or develop other microscopic technologies that can detect molecules, not just atoms at nanometer resolution," Stedman told Gizmodo.

Although "astrovirology" isn't a widely recognized field, Stedman isn't the first person to suggest that viruses exist in abundance in space. Back in 2013, Dale Griffin, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, recommended scientists take a look at whether viruses exist behind our planet. But, he suggests proceeding with caution.

"We should be looking for viruses in our quest for extraterrestrial life, and it may be that viruses pose no risk to human planetary exploration," Griffin wrote in an article published in Astrobiology. "However, the possibility of risk exists, and our potential contact with them should be treated accordingly."