April 5, 2010

Ronald S. Oremland
National Research Program
Water Resources Division
US Geological Survey
Menlo Park, California 94025

Dear Ronald Oremland:
I was interested to read your article, “NO Connection with Methane,” NATURE vol. 464 no. 7288 March 25, 2010 page 500.  You mention that this new bacterium (described in the same issue “Nitrite-Driven Anaerobic Methane Oxidation by Oxygenic Bacteria by Catharina F. Ettwig et al) found in a ditch on earth could point the way to extra-terrestrial organisms that could have a similar metabolism. 

I got interested in exobiology by an indirect route.  I have evidence posted on my website nobabies.net that animals including humans in a big gene pool have lower fertility than those in a small gene pool although not so small as to entail inbreeding.  I put that on my site coincidentally on March 25. 

Since the principles underlying this phenomenon are very general, they should apply off earth as well as on, and specifically could account for the fact that long and diligent search has failed to turn up any extra-terrestrial civilization.  Civilization requires cities.  Cities mean large gene pools.  And large gene pools are doomed.  It is only by historical accident that we earthlings, all unwittingly, postponed the day of reckoning past the time when we could broadcast by radio. 

While I was working up a talk on exobiology for a science fiction convention last year I noticed that it was the most thrilling year yet in the subject.  Methane plumes had been found as large as those on earth (Strong Release of Methane on Mars in the Northern Summer 2003, Michael J. Mumma and others, SCIENCE vol. 323 February 20, 2009 page 1041), and those on earth are thought to be biological in origin.  NASA is now scurrying around studying methane release so as to be ready for the next Mars probe in a few years.

What I found just as exciting was that the methane being released vanishes more rapidly than can be accounted for by known physical processes (Observed Variations of Methane on Mars Unexplained by Known Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Franck Lefèvre and François Forget, NATURE, vol. 460 no. 7256 August 6. 2009 page 720).  It immediately came to mind that something might be eating it.  Whether the necessary nitrites terrestrial bacteria need in order to make the oxygen to metabolize the methane are available on Mars is something I don’t know.

If you do, please let me know so I can include that in my next lecture. 

If you would by any chance like to know more about the fertility issue or to see a copy of last year’s lecture, by all means let me know.


M. Linton Herbert MD

(Dr. Oreland has been gracious enough to respond quite helpfully, and we shall include material he has sent in the next exobiology lecture.)

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