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Meteorite Hints at Life on Jupiter Moon
1 April 1997 8:00 pm
Editor's note: It has come to our attention that some of our readers didn't notice that this story was posted on 1 April, and they didn't follow the link at the bottom to find a message revealing this as an April Fool's spoof. We apologize to any offended readers.
WASHINGTON, D.C.--The search for extraterrestrial life took a fantastic new turn today: Researchers here announced the discovery of a second meteorite bearing signs of microbial life. The find bolsters a report last summer that a martian meteorite is etched with chemical signatures of ancient microbes. The rock appears to be a chunk of Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to harbor an ocean below its icy surface.
Tempering the exciting find, however, six respected researchers--shortly after coming into contact with the meteorite--came down with flulike symptoms and are in isolation at a university hospital. Insiders have denied any link between the illnesses and exposure to the meteorite.
The co-discoverers, biologists Brian Tress and Tory Powers, stumbled across the meteorite on 27 March while on a field trip to study blind naked mole rats in the pine barrens outside Grovers Mill, New Jersey. According to Tress lab technician Dana Sculley, the meteorite was lodged in the entrance to a mole-rat burrow. After removing the rock, she says, the researchers discovered that all 16 rats inside had perished, apparently from a viral infection.
The researchers took the suspicious bowling ball-sized rock to cosmogeochemist guru Genevieve Durak. She performed a polycyclic hydrocarbon ratio test on it; the ratio matched samples returned last year from Europa. Three cores drilled into the meteorite revealed microscopic pods similar to the fruiting bodies of the Ebola virus. The pods, the technician says, "were totally eerie." Within hours, Tress, Powers, Durak, and three other researchers who had come into contact with the rock were in the hospital. Sources discount any connection between the illnesses and the meteorite, dubbed snaf4.01. "They probably had some bad oysters in the cafeteria the other day," says spokesperson Shelley Musgrove.
While expressing hope that their colleagues recover quickly, Mars-life proponents were all smiles. "This settles the question," says one. "Microbes evolved on other planets long before they did on Earth." Other experts, however, are skeptical. "C'mon," says cosmogeophysicist Richard Willis of the University of Dallas, Fort Worth. "These so-called viral pods are obviously contamination from Earth." He points out that the meteorite's 6-3-1 polycyclic hydrocarbon ratio is just a digit off from a bitumen blend used in asphalt during the highway construction boom of the Eisenhower Administration (that ratio is 5-3-1). "This could very well be a chunk of the New Jersey Turnpike," he scoffs. Sculley disagrees: "Neither the turnpike nor some lousy oysters put my colleagues in the hospital," she says. "Somebody needs to take this seriously."
An image of snaf4.01 is available on the Web.