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Mysterious ‘red rain’ scientists wonder whether it’s extraterrestrial

Michael Crichton in his 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain deals with a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism that rapidly and fatally clots human blood. A military satellite designed to capture upper-atmosphere microorganisms upon reentering the Earth wreaks havoc in Piedmont, Arizona, where the satellite lands. This may not seem like the stuff sci-fi anymore, now with some leading scientists claiming that the microorganism found in ‘red rain’ in Sri Lanka is of extraterrestrial origin.

Red rain which caused fear and panic in four different areas in the country namely, Monaragala, Polonnaruwa, Sewanagala and Manampitiya leaving red frost in the latter two districts, continue to baffle local scientists still studying samples of the freak showers. Similar showers of ‘blood rain’ were experienced in Kerala, South India during two consecutive months from July to September this year, spawning several scientific and non-scientific theories with regarding to its origin.

So from where exactly does this mysterious rain originate? Is it from the earth whose natural elements we are familiar with having growing in these environments since the day we were born? Or from some extraterrestrial origins we are completely alien to? Was Sri Lanka’s best known expatriate resident, Sir Arthur C Clarke was correct when he said that alien life existed wishing that he would live to see proof of this before his death? Are we at the brink of a close encounter with aliens, which has coincided with many other strange happenings occurring both here and in other parts of the world? For example the mysterious allergies in school children, the cause of which scientists are still trying to work out.

Does the red rain have a cosmic ancestry – a hypothesis first trotted out by Godfrey Louis and Santhosh Kumar (of Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam) in a paper that won world recognition, which pointed to higher life forms including intelligent life?

In a bid to allegedly prevent ‘bio-scientific problems in the future’ to quote a leading state paper, the Health Ministry is to dispatch six doctors to the affected areas. The same paper states that further studies by the Industrial Technology Institute and Nano Technology Institute also found the algae was harmless and had no impact on human health.

Meanwhile scientists studying samples of the red water at the Medical Research Institute and other institutes such as the Industrial Technological Institute (ITI) and universities told The Nation that they have yet to come to a definite conclusion, although not ruling out algae as a possible cause.While Health Ministry officials claim that the microorganisms contained in the ‘red rain’ is Trachelomonas, Medical Research Institute (MRI) Microbiologist Dr Sujatha Pathirage said that the microorganisms are usually found in contaminated water.

“This is a very rare and unusual occurrence as we have never experienced red rain in this country before. But whatever microorganisms we have been looking at, appear to be living natural organisms usually found in contaminated water, which we can’t co-relate to the red rain,” said Dr Pathirage.No definite conclusion has been reached by scientists studying the red rain samples in neighboring Kerala, either. “Kerala scientists have two theories which we share: That the red rain has been caused by algae from the ocean or from an asteroid from outer space,” she told this writer in a telephone interview.

“Like us they too have yet to come to a definite conclusion as to its source.” She nevertheless admitted that in all probability it could be algae. “However I will be able to make a comment based on facts by next week when we expect the findings from samples we sent to the other institutes.” She did add however that, “with the drastic climatic changes we are now experiencing, we can expect anything.”

Unlike in Sri Lanka, Kerala, red rain is by no means a rare phenomenon. Colored rain in fact has been reported in Kerala as early as 1896 and several times since then. The longest ‘blood rain’ showers were experienced in 2001 when rain of multi-colored hues of yellow, green, black and red were reported for three consecutive months from July 25 to September 23, staining clothes and water as well as vegetation, according to news reports.

The most recent of these red showers was in July this year, lasting for one week. It was initially thought that the rains were colored by fallout from a hypothetical meteor, but a study commissioned by the Government of India is said to have concluded that the rains had been colored by airborne spores from locally prolific terrestrial algae. Several groups of researchers analyzed the chemical elements in the solid particles and different techniques of study gave similar results. The particles were composed mostly of carbon and oxygen with lesser amounts of hydrogen, nitrogen, silicon, chlorine and metals.

In an interview with The Nation last July, Buckingham University UK, Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology Director and Cardiff University Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe claimed that life could have hitched a ride on a comet to earth and evolved into the thousands of species that now inhabit the earth. Writing to The Nation regarding the ‘red rain’, Prof Wickramasinghe says, “We have not examined any samples of the red rain of Sri Lanka, but I have seen some electron micrographs of this material that were sent to me by scientists at the MRI.”

“At first sight it looks uncannily similar to the Kerala red rain which my colleagues and I have been investigating for over five years. The red cells causing the redness of the Kerala rain are undoubtedly biological cells resembling algae. But so far their attempts to identify this known terrestrial algae have proved difficult. We conclude that they have all the characteristics of an alien microorganism.”He added that the only reason that scientists have tended to dismiss this possibility is because it is held that life is a purely the Earth-based affair with life originating on our planet four billion years ago.

“According to him extraterrestrial life is considered by many to be an ‘extraordinary hypothesis’ that needs extraordinary evidence to support it. “Not only is the evidence for panspermia (hypothesis that life exists throughout the universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids and planetoids) and extraterrestrial microbes overwhelming, the confinement of life to our tiny planet is the most extraordinary hypothesis of all.””Even in the past three months we have found evidence from astronomy, biology and geology that make the old theories of life confined to Earth indefensible. I think life is a truly cosmic phenomenon, and terrestrial life is a manifestation of such cosmic life.

It is in this context that I think phenomena like the red rain could be connected with extraterrestrial microbes arriving at the Earth at the present time. In the case of the Kerala red rain a sonic boom was heard prior to the rain. I think a fragment of a comet entering Earth exploded in the high stratosphere and released the red cells that formed the nuclei of raindrops.”Prof Wickramasinghe’s team in the UK have considerable work on the Kerala red rain that was published last year in a paper, ‘Growth and replication of red rain cells at 121oC and their red fluorescence’ co-authored (by Wickramasinghe, Rajkumar Gangappa, Milton Wainwright, Godfrey Louis and Santhosh Kumar) and the results were presented at the SPIE meeting in San Diego, California.

( via nation.lk )