How Deadly Would Extraterrestrial Bacteria Be to Humans?


How deadly would a bacterium be to humans if it was brought from a completely different star system?Drew Smith:

The chance that extraterrestrial bacteria would be deadly to humans is zero. Not just very, very small. Zero.

Pathogenesis requires intimacy. This intimacy is attained through millions of years of co-evolution. The need for intimacy is apparent when you look at how bacteria and viruses cause infections and disease.

Infection requires binding to a cell surface. Bacteria (and viruses) bind to human cells through proteins that recognize human proteins and carbohydrates. The structure of these human proteins and carbohydrates is, to a first approximation, arbitrary. There are an almost infinite number of permutations of them that could exist and work just fine. But only one does exist. The chance that an alien bacteria would have evolved to stick to that protein is infinitesimally small.

Even if this alien bacterium were able to stick to a cell surface, this alone would not establish an infection. Infecting bacteria secrete all kinds of toxins and virulence factors. These toxins and factors bind to specific human proteins. They block or modify their activity in ways that degrade cells and tissues, releasing nutrients that the bacteria can feed upon.

Again, the target proteins have fairly arbitrary structures. They are the result of billions of years of evolutionary history and their precise structure—and even their existence is not at all predictable. The chance that an alien bacterium would have evolved toxins that precisely target them is infinitesimally small.

Pathogenicity is extremely rare on Earth. There are millions, perhaps billions, of species of bacteria. The number of potential human pathogens among them is very small, no more than a couple hundred. And only a couple dozen are able to infect otherwise healthy humans. These are bacteria that have been with us for millions of years, evolving as we evolve, becoming intimately familiar with our proteins, our cells, our immune systems.

This knowledge is stamped into their genomes; it is a diary of their long association with us. It is not a book that could be written in an alien language. Alien bacteria are no more likely to be human pathogens than intelligent aliens are likely to speak Urdu as their native tongue. It just isn’t possible.

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Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Don't Miss Saturn And Jupiter's Great Conjunction on the Winter Solstice

Paul Williams, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Paul Williams, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 2020, skygazers were treated to meteor showers, a new comet, and a Halloween blue moon. One of the last major astronomical events of the year is set to fall on the night of the winter solstice. On December 21, look up to catch Saturn in conjunction with Jupiter.

What is the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter?

In astronomy, a conjunction occurs when two planets appear exceptionally close in the night sky. Two of our solar system's gas giants will share a celestial "kiss" on the longest night of the year. The rare meeting of Saturn and Jupiter is known as the "great conjunction" by astronomers.

Though conjunctions between the planets are fairly common, Saturn and Jupiter only get together once in a generation. Their last conjunction happened 20 years ago in the year 2000. Even if you were around for the last one, 2020's planetary meet-up is worth catching. Saturn and Jupiter will come within 0.1° of each other, or about one-fifth the width of a full moon. The last time the two planets came that close was in 1653, and they won't match that proximity again until 2080.

How to see the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter

Saturn and Jupiter have been inching closer throughout October and November. You can find them now by looking for Jupiter, currently the brightest planet in the night sky, right after sunset. Saturn will appear just east of Jupiter as a dimmer planet with a golden hue.

As autumn wanes, the two planets will gradually bridge the space between them until they reach conjunction on winter solstice. On Monday, December 21, the planets will be so close that they may form a coalescence. That happens when the light from two planets appear to shine as a single star. When that happens, the super-bright body will be easy to spot.