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Interstellar communication using microbial data storage: implications

for SETI (part 1)


by Robert Zubrin, Monday, June 19, 2017 The Space Review

SETI has traditionally involved radio searches, like the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, but
there may be better ways to seek signs of extraterrestrial civilizations. (credit: Green Bank
Observatory)

It is a general principle of science that the laws of nature should apply equally well throughout the
universe. Specifically, since the dawn of modern science in the Renaissance, under the philosophical
banner as above, so below, it has been taken as axiomatic that the laws of nature that prevail
elsewhere in the universe should also apply on Earth, and those that apply on Earth should apply
equally well elsewhere. This being the case, it necessarily follows that if life and intelligence could
develop from physics and chemistry via natural processes on Earth, it should also have done so in
innumerable other equally satisfactory physical and chemical environments throughout the cosmos.
Indeed, the early Earth at the time of lifes first appearance immediately following the end of the
heavy bombardment was in no way exceptional. Furthermore, the processes by which life can develop
from simple forms to complexity and intelligence are, in broad outline, well understood.

While the universe is vast in space, it also is so in time, so Given this failure, it is appropriate to
that a spacecraft traveling at a velocity of 0.0001c (the speed
of the Earth in its travel around the Sun) could in 4.5 million revisit the assumptions behind the
years (0.1 percent the age of the Earth) travel 450 light- Morrison-Cocconi hypothesis
years, a radius encompassing approximately 1 million stars, suggesting interstellar communication
with surely enough candidates for many additional origins via S-band.
for life and civilization. Despite these favorable odds, no
such extraterrestrials have been detected, a mystery leading
the physicist Enrico Fermi to ask his famous paradoxical question at a 1950 Los Alamos lunchtime
meeting: So then, where are they?

One possible reply to the Fermi Paradox is that they are out there, but that if you want to find them
you need to look for them in the right way. In 1959, Cornell physicists Phil Morrison and Giuseppe
Cocconi (Cocconi and Morrison, 1959) proposed that extraterrestrials might be communicating across
space using 1.42-gigahertz radio, as the emissions of hydrogen gas at that frequency make it the most
listened-to band in radio astronomy. Moreover, it is approximately the same frequency as the L-band
and S-band radio systems that were becoming state of the art for spacecraft communication at that
time, a fact that added credence to the Morrison-Cocconi hypothesis, and made it readily testable as
well. Accordingly, shortly thereafter astronomer Frank Drake attempted to detect such signals from
Tau Ceti, without success. Undeterred, Drake, his co-workers, competitors, and successors continued
with many such search searches, from that time down to the present, where the SETI Institute, among
others, is continuing the effort on a greatly expanded basis with vastly improved instrumentation, but
no better results.

Given this failure, it is appropriate to revisit the assumptions behind the Morrison-Cocconi hypothesis
suggesting interstellar communication via S-band. Certain of its supports have already been falsified
by technological progress, in that, a mere 60 years later, S-band is already obsolete. Instead, our
spacecraft now communicate at higher frequencies, such as X-band (10 gigahertz) and Ka-band (30
gigahertz), as these higher frequencies allow for higher bandwidths for spacecraft communication
systems of a given size and power.

But while the Morrison-Cocconi hypothesis, and resulting search, can be adjusted to take into account
such improvements, there are deeper problems. The first of these is that communicating effectively
across interstellar distances via radio is incredibly hard and inefficient. To see this, let us consider
what it would take to design such a system.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), launched in 2005, has a modern 100-watt X-band
communication system. Equipped with a two-meter diameter dish, it can transmit at a rate of 6
megabits per second to a 70-meter receiving system on Earth at a distance of 100 million kilometers.
A modest range for effective interstellar communication would be 10 light years, or 100 trillion
kilometers. At this million-fold greater distance, the MRO communication system would have its data
rate reduced by a factor of a trillion, from 6 megabits per second to 6 microbits per second, or 200 bits
per year. This would appear to be too slow for practical purposes, so lets upgrade the transmitter
power to one gigawatt and its dish size to 70 meters. Taken together, these upgrades would increase
the data rate by a factor of 10 billion, to 60 kilobits per second, which would be fine. The upgraded
system would have a capability of 600 bits per second at 100 light-years, which is still sufficient to be
useful, as those who can remember working with computer modems in the 1980s can readily attest.

Assuming that the transmitter was X-band, the diameter of the beam at 10 light-years would be about
2500 astronomical units, so it would encompass the whole solar system, and then some, but the closest
neighbor solar system would be 100 times further away that the width of the beam. So ETs one-
gigawatt transmitter could only be used to signal one solar system at a time. How would they know
whom to signal?

A good place to start would be to only send signals to planets manifesting a biosphere. These could be
detected using astronomical techniques by observing the spectral signal of free oxygen in the planets
atmosphere. But Earth, for example, would have provided a positive answer to such a search criterion
for the past 500 million years, but only has only possessed a species able to receive and detect such a
signal for the past 50 years. Based on these odds, ET would have to set up one million transmitters to
living planets have a 10 percent chance that one of its signal units would be sending at the right time.
This would require a transmitter system power of 1000 terawatts, about two orders of magnitudes
higher than the total power produced by human civilization today. If they wanted to keep their odds as
good, but reduce the number of transmitters, they could do so, but only at the cost of continuing to
power the transmission program for millions of years.

Furthermore, to receive the signal, the inhabitants of the In short, I am suggesting that rather
target planet would have to be focusing their 70-meter dish
at precisely the right star at the right time, be listening at the than transmit information across
right frequency, and be technologically and intellectually interstellar distances using radio
prepared to recognize and decipher the signal. Using lasers waves, that solid objects containing
instead of radio to transmit would reduce the power records be used instead.
requirement significantly, but it would still be huge and,
furthermore, it would impose a requirement that the
receiving civilization have a giant telescope focused on the transmitters narrow beam at the right
time, with its optics limited to the transmitting frequency to avoid having the transmitter outshone by
its home systems star. This seems like a rather farfetched hope upon which to expect ET to spend
such a large investment in infrastructure and energy.

Surely there must be a more efficient approach. What could it be?

Interstellar data transmission by microbial storage drives

One problem of data transmission by radio is that it occurs in real time, leaving no record behind.
Once the transmission is over, its gone. If the intended recipients miss it the first time, theyve missed
it for all time. As a result, the transmitting party is forced to transmit repeatedly, perhaps endlessly, in
the hope that, on at least one occasion, someone might be listening.

Imagine that you want to tell a story to children. So you walk onto the front porch of a house and tell
the story, whether any children are there are not. In fact, they are usually out running around, so you
probably have missed your audience. But the odds against you are worse, because while the house is
suitable for children, they may not have been born yet, or those that are there may be too young to
understand your story, or they could have grown up and moved out. Now, you could increase your
odds by going from porch to porch, reading the story again and again in the hope that someone might
be there to listen. But this could get exhausting.

A better strategy would be to go about slipping storybooks into houses through their mail slots. Even if
most of them ended up on the shelf or sold to used book stores, sooner or later many of them would
likely get read. The only problem with this strategy is its cost; giving out a lot of storybooks could be
expensive. But if you could get them for free, and have them delivered for you cheaply, it could be a
very good approach, allowing you to reach many children not only today, but also for decades and
generations to come.

In short, I am suggesting, in agreement with Davies (Davies, 2010), that rather than transmit
information across interstellar distances using radio waves, that solid objects containing records be
used instead. This may seem like it would be very inefficient, but in fact every planetary civilization
orbiting a star has available to it an engine that it can use to send information across space at little or
no energy cost. This is the star itself.

Let us consider our own Sun as a case in point. At one astronomical unit, the Sun attracts objects to it
with a gravitational acceleration of 0.006 m/s2. It also repels objects from it via its light pressure with
a force of 0.000009 N/m2. If these two forces are equal, an object will feel no attraction from the Sun,
and fly out of the solar system in a straight line with the Earths velocity of 30 kilometers per second.
(Both of these forces change with the inverse square of their distance from the Sun, so if they are equal
at one astronomical unit, they remain equal at any distance.) Assuming the object has a radius r and a
density d, and setting these two forces as being equal we find:

Gravity = (4r3d/3)(0.006) = Light pressure = (r2)(0.000009)

Cancelling terms, this simplifies to:

r = 0.001125/d

If d = 1,000 kg/m3 (water density), we find that r = 1 micron. This means that such an object would
have a diameter of 2 microns. However, it is not necessary to cancel all the force of gravity to escape
the solar system. If half of the gravitational attraction is cancelled, an object with the orbital velocity
for the full gravity object will escape. In the case above, this would imply a maximum diameter of 4
microns.

If the star were brighter than the Sun compared to its gravity, which would be the case with F stars, the
objects could be somewhat larger. If it were dimmer than the Sun compared to its gravity, as would be
the case with K stars, the objects would be need to be smaller. If their initial orbits were elliptical,
rather than circular, the objects could be bigger. So, depending on assumed conditions, the diameter of
the objects could range from 1 to 10 microns, and be readily projectible across interstellar distances
using no other mechanism than the pressure of the stars light. This is precisely the size range of many
typical bacteria. (Arrhenius, 1908)

It is also possible that the solar wind, which moves at a So, bacteria can be projected across
velocity of about 500 kilometers per second, could be used
interstellar space at essentially no
to propel particles out of the solar system at very high
velocity. However, in order for a particle to interact power cost to the transmitting party,
effectively with the solar wind, it would need be strongly beyond that required to launch them to
magnetized, allowing it to function as a miniature magnetic planetary escape velocity. But can
sail. (Zubrin and Andrews, 1989). Under normal they carry useful information?
circumstances, even such a strongly magnetized particle
would be propelled away from the Sun by the solar wind
with less force than that provided by light pressure. During solar flare events, which greatly increase
the force of the plasma wind emanating from the Sun, however, this could change radically.

In Table 1, we show the relationship between star type, population fraction, star mass, luminosity,
orbital distance and velocity and maximum particle diameter for stellar system escape for stars of
various types. In each case the launch planet is assumed to be in a circular orbit in the given star types
habitable zone. It can be seen that for type F, G, and K stars, collectively amounting to about 22.5
percent of the stellar population, that starlight can readily propel bacteria-sized objects to system
escape velocity. At half the diameters shown, the objects will be projected outward from the stellar
system at the orbital velocity given, at less than half, still greater velocity. Objects larger than that
shown will not escape the system by light pressure alone, but could still do so if the light pressure is
enough to drive them into an elliptical orbit that intersects a large planet capable of delivering a
gravity assist.

Upon reaching a destination solar system, the bacteria-sized particles could be decelerated using the
same mechanism.

Table 1 Interstellar Particle Transmission Capabilities of Star Types.


Star Type Fraction Star Mass Luminosity Distance Velocity Diameter

F 0.03 1.2 Suns 2 Suns 1.44 AU 27 km/s 7 microns

G 0.075 1 1 1 30 4

K 0.12 0.7 0.24 0.49 35 1.4

M 0.76 0.3 0.0081 0.09 54 0.1

In Table 1, the particles are assumed to be simple spheres. If more complex shapes are usedfor
example, shapes with a spherical core surrounded by thinner wingsthe core spheres can be thicker
and still achieve the same velocities. For example, a sphere with a diameter of 4 microns surrounded
by a disc with a diameter of 8 microns and a thickness of 1 micron would have the same surface/mass
ratio as a simple sphere with a diameter of 1.2 microns, and would therefore be able to escape a K star.
Such microsailcraft designs could be readily mass-produced artificially or potentially created
through natural crystallization processes, as exemplified by snowflakes. They could be stabilized in a
manner to effectively serve as sails either by spinning (as some snowflakes do), or by having
inherently stable shapes, as exemplified by a badminton birdie.
So, bacteria can be projected across interstellar space at essentially no power cost to the transmitting
party, beyond that required to launch them to planetary escape velocity. The latter could be
accomplished either by artificial technological means that are well within our means todayand
therefore clearly feasible for advanced extraterrestrialsor potentially through natural processes such
as asteroidal impacts. They also may be cheaply mass produced (McDowell, 2003). But can they carry
useful information?

The answer is most certainly yes. The genetic material of individual common bacteria is estimated to
contain between 130 kilobytes to 14 megabytes of information. Current estimates that bacteria can be
used to store data with a density of 900 terabytes per gram, about 500 times greater than current state-
of-the-art electromagnetic hardware. This means that a bacterium 5 microns on a size could store
about 120 kilobytes of information (Wilkins 2010, Herkewitz 2016). Taking 60 kilobytes as typical,
this means that a single bacterium can carry a record of information about equal in size to a 10,000-
word (~30 page) booklet. In experiments done to date, scientists have demonstrated such capabilities
by encoding entire books in DNA, and showing that bacteria can be made to replicate encoded
information when they reproduce (Ayre 2012). Most recently, researchers at Columbia University and
the New York Genome Project have shown that they can encode information with a density of
215,000 terabytes of information per gram in DNA, with some of the items successfully encoded
including a movie, a computer operating system, and an Amazon gift card (Service, 2017).

Traveling at a velocity of 30 kilometers per second (0.0001c), bacteria would take 100,000 years to fly
10 light-years. This would expose them to cosmic ray doses between 1 and 10 megarads, which is
close to the limit for survivability of hardy microcrobial species such as radiodurans. This need not be
a showstopper. A message sent using bacteria storage would no doubt use billions of individuals, and
if even a few survived the trip the message could still get through. While ultraviolet light would kill
unshielded bacteria in days, effective shielding against this hazard can be provided by a half micron of
soot (Hoyle, 1981). Such protection would be provided by design in any artificial microsailcraft, but
could conceivably also occur naturally.

Such long trips might not be necessary, however. Once they reach a planet, bacteria will multiply to
vast numbers. They can then be ejected again into space via cometary impact. Such impacts are most
likely to occur during periods when a foreign star is passing through the Oort Cloud of the bacterias
home star, as such a passage would destabilize Oort Cloud object orbits orbiting both stars, and
thereby causing impacts to occur. Like frigates in the age of fighting sail, which could span the globe
with their movements but only reach a few hundred yards with their guns, roving solar systems
discharge their broadsides at each other only during rare close approaches. As a result, ejected bacteria
might typically only need to travel distances on the order of 0.1 light-years to reach a new planetary
home, with radiation doses accordingly reduced by two orders of magnitude compared to those
postulated above.

Given the density of stars in our own region of the galaxy, and assuming a random velocity of stars
relative to each other of five kilometers per second, it can be shown that a star is likely to experience
such a close encounter about once every 20 million years, a frequency strikingly close to the observed
mean time of 26 million years between of mass extinctions on Earth (Zubrin, 2001). It may be noted
that microbes traveling embedded in impact debris would be well shielded from ultraviolet and soft x-
rays, thereby increasing their survival odds (Melosh, 1988, Hornek, Klaus, and Mancinelli, 2010).

The Milky Way galaxy is 13 billion years old. Allowing three billion years for several generations of
early stars to seed the place with heavy elements, that leaves 10 billion years, or 500 stellar close-
encounter doubling times of 20 million years each, for life to spread from its first planet of origin to
everywhere else. So the answer to Fermis paradoxical question is almost certainly this: Theyre here.

The purpose of interstellar communication

At this point, we need to reexamine the question of what might be the purpose of interstellar
communication. Certainly, if a species were spacefaring and had sent out expeditions that established
settlements in nearby solar systems, it would want to maintain communication to exchange or trade
information among its various worlds. For such purposes, high-gain directed electromagnetic
transmissions would be the most practical, as they are the fastest possible, the most secure, and all the
required technological and linguistic conventions would be known and mutually understood between
the parties involved.

But if we are talking about communication between different So the question is, what kind of
species originating in different and distant worlds, what is
the point? In speculative SETI literature, it is frequently information is really worth
supposed that there are intelligent aliens out there, who for broadcasting that is distributed as
some reason want others to know that they exist, and widely as possible to people who we
therefore transmit signals such as the value of pi into the dont know and are not likely to hear
void, so that other smart folks wont confuse them with back from? If human experience is any
astrophysical phenomenon. Then, assuming that someone guide, the answer is propaganda.
picks up the signal, they will transmit back the value of e, or
the golden mean, or some other special number, thereby
completing the freemasonic handshake. This done, the two parties could then proceed to methodically
expand their mutual vocabulary, eventually allowing them to exchange QST cards, recipes, celebrity
gossip, novels, scientific theories, starship designs, and treaties of alliance against the barbarians from
the galactic rim.

However, as noted above, both experimental searches and theoretical considerations suggest that such
a picture does not correspond to reality. Microbial data transmission is possible, but it does not lend
itself to conversations of the types described above. Rather, it is a superior method of interstellar
broadcasting.

So the question is, what kind of information is really worth broadcasting that is distributed as widely
as possible to people who we dont know and are not likely to hear back from? If human experience is
any guide, the answer is propaganda. Think of Radio Free Europe, or its Cold War opposite number,
Radio Moscow, for example, and their persistent messaging: We are good. You should admire us.
You should be like us. You should join us. Another example would be the Gideons, placing Bibles in
hotel rooms in the hope that their unknown readers would see the light and become Christians. We
also try to broadcast ourselves to worlds we will never see, by using art to send our message across
deep time. Thus Pericles at the Parthenon: Future ages will wonder at us, even as the present age
wonders at us now.

The key to propaganda is in the root of the word itself: propagate. Through propaganda we seek to
propagate ourselves across both space and time. This can be in spirit, as in the cases described above,
or in the flesh, through physical reproduction. Indeed, while only a relative handful of people have
been able to message the future through monuments, literary works, or art, the great majority of those
of the past world who have sent us something of themselves have done so by propagating themselves
biologically. Using this method, they have transmitted to our world not only their genotypes and
phenotypes, but even their languages, beliefs, and traditions as well. Propagation is propaganda.
Propaganda is propagation. It is the most desired form of communication. It is how the past has
communicated with us, and how we seek to communicate with the future. This is a key point, because
interstellar communication through any means must perforce be communication across time.

So, it should be clear. If we are going to transmit across the ages, we need to send instructions on how
to make ourselves. Such messages are not sent via radio. They are sent using genes.

The code of life is the code of the cosmos.

Panspermia or geospermia?
It is a striking fact that, despite several centuries of microbial research by thousands of competent
investigators, no free-living organisms have been found on Earth that are simpler than bacteria. This is
truly remarkable because, as simple as bacteria may be compared to more complex organisms, they
are certainly not simple in any absolute sense, incorporating as they do, among other things, the entire
elegant double-helix scripted language of DNA. Believing that bacteria were the first life forms to
emerge from chemistry is like believing that the iPhone was the first human-invented machine. This is
incredible. Just as the development of the iPhone had to be preceded by the development of
computers, radio, telephones, electricity, glassware, metallurgy, and written and spoken language, to
name just a few necessary technological predecessors, so the creation of the first bacterium had to be
preceded by the evolution of a raft of preceding biological technologies. But we see no evidence of
any such history.

We still see devices all around us that use one or more of the iPhones ancestor technologies
telephones, light bulbs, batteries, glass windows, and steel knives, for examplebut we see no pre-
bacteria organisms. This observation has led many investigators, dating back to Arrhenius (Arrhenius
1908) over a century ago, to postulate that life on Earth is an immigrant phenomenon. According to
this panspermia hypothesis, bacteria did not originate on Earth, but came here from space, after
which they gave rise via generally understood evolutionary processes to all other life forms.

The panspermia hypothesis is generally disliked by origin of life researchers, because it completely
ducks their central question of how life originated from chemistry in the first place. This is particularly
the case for the original form of the panspermia hypothesis offered by Arrhenius, who believed that
the universe and life had existed eternally, thus making the question of the origin of either
meaningless. However, if the panspermia hypothesis is taken to simply open the question as to the
location of lifes planet of origin, then it is by no means useless. Consider that an investigator seeking
to explain the origin of Americans would be crippled in his or her research if he or she had to accept as
axiomatic the conceit that humans evolved independently in North America (and even more so if
Golden, Colorado, were specified.)

No, the fact is that humans originated in Africa, and only came to the Americas much later. This is
why we can find evidence of humanitys closest relatives, primate ancestors, and earliest cultures and
technologies in Africa but not in North America. Knowing this, an investigator would not be bound to
try to explain the independent origin of humans from native North American (or Goldenian) fauna, but
instead could focus on conditions and biological foundations that were present in Africa in the relevant
period. Similarly, there have been origin of life experiments, such as the famed Miller-Urey
experiment, that have been discounted because they postulated conditions that did not exist on the
early Earth. If the possibility of an extraterrestrial origin of life is accepted, such objections lose their
force.

Indeed, insistence on geospermia by assumption puts origin The key question for microbial SETI
of life researchers in the same absurd position as the above
is whether there is artificial intelligent
described unfortunate paleontologist, whose assumption of a
local origin for humanity forces him or her to reject the input being inserted into the vast flood
theory that humans evolved from higher primates because of genetic information traveling
there were no such species in evidence in Golden, Colorado, around the Earth. Are there any real
at the time of humanitys appearance. There are innumerable letters of importance to be found in the
planets where the spontaneous formation of amino acids deluge of junk mail?
from chemistry, as demonstrated by the Miller-Urey
experiment, could readily have occurred, as opposed to the
early Earth, where it could not. Science needs to follow the data, not defy it. Therefore it is the Miller-
Urey experimental results that discredit the assumption of geospermia, rather than the reverse.

Further support is offered to the panspermia hypothesis by discoveries of bacterial fossils known as
stromatolites, dating back approximately 3.5 billion years, and residues of biological activities dating
back 3.8 billion years, that is practically right back the end of the heavy bombardment that previously
made the early Earth uninhabitable. In fact, as this is being written, a team of researchers have just
reported microfossils that date back 4.28 billion years, that is, to the middle of the heavy bombardment
(Drake 2017). In short, life appeared on our planet virtually as soon as it possibly could (and possibly
several times, before it could last), suggesting that it was already around, waiting to land and spread as
soon as conditions on the ground were acceptable.

The primary counterargument offered against the panspermia hypothesis is that there may once have
been prebacteria on Earth, but that they have since been wiped out by their more developed
descendants. While this may be possible, it is not consistent with the history of life on Earth, in which
simpler forms generally continue to exist in abundance even after they give rise to higher or more
complex varieties. In any case, this argument is only an excuse for the lack of any evidence for any
prebacterial history of life on Earth. Accordingly, it has no power or potential to falsify the panspermia
hypothesis.

Furthermore, it needs to be understood that the conceit that life originated on Earth is quite
extraordinary. There are over 400 billion of stars in our galaxy, with multiple planets orbiting many of
them. There are 51 billion hectares on Earth. The probability that life first originated on Earth, rather
than another world, is thus comparable to the probability that the first human on our planet was born
on any particular 0.1-hectare lot chosen at random; for example, my backyard. It really requires
evidence, not merely an excuse for lack of evidence, to be supported.

The panspermia hypothesis could be falsified however, if we were to send explorers to Mars and find
either a) no evidence of any past or present life, b) evidence for the presence of prebacteria, or c)
evidence of life of sufficiently different type as to imply a second genesis. Condition (a) would falsify
panspermia because Mars had liquid water on its surface during the period when life appeared on
Earth, so that if Earth were seeded via panspermia, Mars should have been seeded too. Condition (b)
would refute panspermia directly by revealing the prior evolutionary history of Earth life on Mars,
from whence it could readily have been transmitted here via meteoric impact. Condition (c) would
refute panspermia by showing two independent origins. However, if none of these conditions are met,
and we find evidence of past or present bacteria on Mars similar in structure to Earth bacteria dating
back to the planets early history, with no evidence of prebacteria, the panspermia hypothesis would
be strongly supported.

In the absence of falsification, we are presented with three possibilities for interstellar microbial
transmission.

1. The transmission is natural, being the result of ejection of material from microbe-inhabited
planets following meteoric impacts.
2. The transmission is artificial, being the result of intentional dispersal by intelligent
extraterrestrials of microbes carrying imprinted encoded information.
3. The dispersal is both artificial and natural, being the result of both processes listed above going
on simultaneously.

With respect to the above listed possibilities, the one that seems most difficult to defend is (2), because
if bacteria can survive interstellar trips, there will be natural transmission, regardless of whether
artificial transmission is also going on. Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that natural
transmission has been going on for at least 3.6 billion years, if from no other original source than the
Earth. If the average time between close stellar encounters is 20 million years, with number of microbe
inhabited system doubling each time, we could expect 2180 solar systems in our galaxy to have been
Earth-progeny-microbe-invaded by now, which is to say all of them, many times over. (This being the
case, the probability that the Earth was actually the first of these billions of microbe-inhabited worlds
would be vanishingly small.)

So, the question is not whether interstellar microbial transmission is going on; it almost certainly is.
Further, even if is not occurring naturally, it is still clearly possible through artificial means. So
indeed, far from being a necessary condition for microbial SETI, even the possibility of natural
panspermia creates difficulties, as it introduces the potential for noise that could drown out the signal.

The key question for microbial SETI is whether there is artificial intelligent input being inserted into
the vast flood of genetic information traveling around the Earth. Are there any real letters of
importance to be found in the deluge of junk mail? If so, how could we pick them out?