Mythbusting thriller science: Space bacteria #1 (Crichton’s Andromeda Strain)

Fans of science and medical thrillers expect to read some technical stuff.  We love the lingo (“CMP plus diff, ABG, and tox screen, stat!”) even if we don’t have a clue what it actually means.  A good science thriller is grounded in real, contemporary science.  We’ll let an author stretch and exaggerate reality for the sake of a good story, but if the science itself is fictional or far in the future, that book is called sci-fi, not a science thriller.

In this blog series, I’ll tackle scientific or medical elements in books I’ve reviewed and discuss where lies the line between fact and fiction.  Do some authors use myths that deserve to be busted?  Or is the technical stuff accurate all the way to the Ph.D. level?

I’ll begin at the beginning, with Michael Crichton’s genre-creating masterpiece of 1969, The Andromeda Strain. Like many of Crichton’s books, The Andromeda Strain is bursting at the seams with technical detail.  In a brief series of posts, I’ll discuss three angles on Crichton’s main idea: bacteria in space.

Crichton clearly models one of his characters, Dr. Jeremy Stone, on real-life Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg who won the Prize in 1958 for his pioneering work on bacterial genetics.  In 1959, Stone in the book and Lederberg in real life worked with NASA to develop methods of sterilizing space probes to prevent contaminating alien places with terrestrial bacteria.  The concern was that contamination brought from earth would confuse the search for extraterrestrial life.  (Fascinating original document on this topic)  The sterilization methods proposed (heat, radiation, ethylene oxide gas) are all effective at killing bacteria and are widely used in hospitals and laboratories today.

However, in 1959, our understanding of bacterial diversity was limited, focused on those species which cause disease in humans or live in the same habitat we do.  Now we know that bacteria are the most successful, most numerous life forms on earth.  No matter how extreme the environment, bacteria have evolved to occupy the niche.  In boiling deep ocean thermal vents, radiation- or toxin-soaked industrial accident sites, and underneath the Antarctic ice shelf; from a low-pressure vacuum to the crushing pressure of miles of ocean water, from near-absolute zero to temperatures well above the boiling point of water: some species of bacteria can survive.  Many of these “extremophiles” would laugh at NASA’s “sterilization” methods.

With regard, then, to Crichton’s idea: could some kinds of bacteria survive in outer space?  The answer is almost certainly yes.

In my next post: Exobiology and panspermia.  If bacteria can float through space, then where did we come from?

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