Life’s There, You Just Need to Dig

Image credit: NASA
A place so barren that NASA uses it as a model for the Martian environment, Chile’s Atacama desert gets rain maybe once a decade. In 2003, scientists reported that the driest Atacama soils were sterile.

Not so, reports a team of Arizona scientists. Bleak though it may be, microbial life lurks beneath the arid surface of the Atacama’s absolute desert.

“We found life, we can culture it, and we can extract and look at its DNA,” said Raina Maier, a professor of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The work from her team contradicts last year’s widely reported study that asserted the “Mars-like soils” of the Atacama’s core were the equivalent of the “dry limit of microbial life.”

Maier said, “We are saying, ‘What is the dry limit of life?’ We haven’t reached it yet.”

The Arizona researchers will publish their findings as a letter in the Nov. 19 issue of the journal Science. Maier’s co-authors include UA researchers Kevin Drees, Julie Neilson, David Henderson and Jay Quade and U.S. Geological Survey paleoecologist Julio Betancourt. The project was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Environmental and Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The project began not as a search for current life but rather as an attempt to peer into the past and reconstruct the history of the region’s plant communities. Betancourt and Quade, a UA professor of geosciences, have been conducting research in the Atacama for the past seven years.

Some parts of the Atacama have vegetation, but the absolute desert of the Atacama’s core — an area Betancourt describes as “just dirt and rocks” — has none.

Nor does the area have cliffs which harbor ancient piles of vegetation, known as middens, collected and stored by long-gone rodents. Researchers use such fossil plant remains to tell what grew in a place long ago.

So to figure out whether the area had ever been vegetated, Quade and Betancourt had to search the soil for biologically produced minerals such as carbonates. To rule out the possibility that such soil minerals were being produced by present-day microorganisms, the two geoscientists teamed up with UA environmental microbiologist Maier.

In October of 2002, the researchers collected sterile soil samples along a 200-kilometer (120 miles) transect that ran from an elevation of 4,500 meters (almost 15,000 feet) to sea level.

Every 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) along the transect, the team dug a pit and took two soil samples from a depth of 20 to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 inches). To ensure the sample was sterile, every time he took the sample, Betancourt had to clean his hand trowel with Lysol.

“When it’s still, it’s not a problem,” he said. “But when the wind’s blowing at 40 miles per hour, it’s a little more complicated.”

The geoscientists brought their test tubes full of desert soil back to Maier’s lab, where her team wetted the soil samples with sterile water, let them sit for 10 days, and then grew bacteria from them.

“We brought ’em back alive, it turns out,” Betancourt said.

Maier and her team have not yet identified the bacteria that come from the extremely arid environment of the Atacama’s core. She can say they are unusual.

She said, “As a microbiologist, I am interested in how these microbial communities evolve and respond. Can we discover new microbial activities in such extreme environments? Are those activities something we can exploit?”

The team’s findings suggest that how researchers look for life on Mars may affect whether life is found on the Red Planet.

The other researchers who had tested soil from the Atacama had looked for life only down to the depth of four inches. So one rule, Quade quipped, is, “Don’t just scratch the surface.”

Saying that Mars researchers are most likely looking for a needle in a very large haystack, Maier said, “If you aren’t very careful about your Mars protocol, you could miss life that’s there.”

Peter H. Smith, the UA planetary scientist who is the principal investigator for the upcoming Phoenix mission to Mars, said, “Scientists on the Phoenix Mission suspect that there are regions on Mars, arid like the Atacama Desert in Chile, that are conducive to microbial life.” He added, “We will attempt an experiment similar to Maier’s group on Mars during the summer of 2008.”

As for Maier and her colleagues, Betancourt said, “We’re very, very interested in life on Earth and how it functions.”

Maier suspects the microbes may persist in a state of suspended animation during the Atacama Desert’s multi-decadal dry spells.

So the team’s next step is to return to Chile and do experiments on-site. One option is what Maier calls “making our own rainfall event” — adding water to the Atacama’s soils — and seeing whether the team could then detect microbial activity.

Original Source: UA News Release

Is There Life on Europa?

Image credit: NASA
Christopher Chyba is the principal investigator for the SETI Institute lead team of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). Chyba formerly headed the SETI Institute’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. His NAI team is pursuing a wide range of research activities, looking at both life’s beginnings on Earth and the possibility of life on other worlds. Several of his team’s research projects will examine the potential for life – and how one might go about detecting it – on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Astrobiology Magazine’s managing editor Henry Bortman recently spoke with Chyba about this work.

Astrobiology Magazine: One of the areas of focus of your personal research has been the possibility of life on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Several of the projects funded by your NAI grant deal with this ice-covered world.

Christopher Chyba: Right. We’re interested in interactions of life and planetary evolution. There are three worlds that are most interesting from that point of view: Earth, Mars and Europa. And we have a handful of projects going that are relevant to Europa. Cynthia Phillips is the leader of one of those projects; my grad student here at Stanford, Kevin Hand, heads up another one; and Max Bernstein, who’s a SETI Institute P.I., is a leader on the third.

There are two components to Cynthia’s projects. One that I think is really exciting is what she calls “change comparison.” That goes back to her days of being a graduate associate on the Galileo imaging team, where she did comparisons to look for surface changes on another of Jupiter’s moons, Io, and was able to extend her comparisons to include older Voyager images of Io.

We have Galileo images of Io, taken in the late 1990s, and we have Voyager images of Io, taken in 1979. So there are two decades between the two. If you can do a faithful comparison of the images, then you can learn about what’s changed in the interim, get some sense of how geologically active the world is. Cynthia did this comparison for Io, then did it for the much more subtle features of Europa.

That may sound like a trivial task. And for really gross features I suppose it is. You just look at the images and see if something’s changed. But since the Voyager camera was so different, since its images were taken at different lighting angles than Galileo images, since the spectral filters were different, there are all sorts of things that, once you get beyond the biggest scale of examination, make that much more difficult than it sounds. Cynthia takes the old Voyager images and, if you will, transforms them as closely as one can into Galileo-type images. Then she overlays the images, so to speak, and does a computer check for geological changes.

When she did this with Europa as part of her Ph.D. thesis, she found that there were no observable changes in 20 years on those parts of Europa that we have images for from both spacecraft. At least not at the resolution of the Voyager spacecraft – you’re stuck with the lowest resolution, say about two kilometers per pixel.

Over the duration of the Galileo mission, you’ve got at best five and a half years. Cynthia’s idea is that you’re more likely to detect change in smaller features, in a Galileo-to-Galileo comparison, at the much higher resolution that Galileo gives you, than you were working with images that were taken 20 years apart but that require you to work at two kilometers per pixel. So she’s going to do the Galileo-to-Galileo comparison.

The reason this is interesting from an astrobiological perspective is that any sign of geological activity on Europa might give us some clues about how the ocean and the surface interact. The other component of Cynthia’s project is to better understand the suite of processes involved in those interactions and what their astrobiological implications might be.

AM: You and Kevin Hand are working together to study some of the chemical interactions believed to be taking place on Europa. What specifically will you be looking at?

There are a number of components of the work I’m doing with Kevin. One component stems from a paper that Kevin and I had in Science in 2001, which has to do with the simultaneous production of electron donors and electron acceptors. Life as we know it, if it doesn’t use sunlight, makes its living by combining electron donors and acceptors and harvesting the liberated energy.

For example, we humans, like other animals, combine our electron donor, which is reduced carbon, with oxygen, which is our electron acceptor. Microbes, depending on the microbe, may use one, or several, of many possible different pairings of electron donors and electron acceptors. Kevin and I were finding abiotic ways that these pairings could be produced on Europa, using what we understand about Europa now. Many of these are produced through the action of radiation. We’re going to continue that work in much more detailed simulations.

We’re also going to look at the survival potential of biomarkers at Europa’s surface. That is to say, if you’re trying to look for biomarkers from an orbiter, without getting down to the surface and digging, what sort of molecules would you look for and what are your prospects for actually seeing them, given that there’s an intense radiation environment at the surface that should slowly degrade them? Maybe it won’t even be that slow. That’s part of what we want to understand. How long can you expect certain biomarkers that would be revelatory about biology to survive on the surface? Is it so short that looking from orbit doesn’t make any sense at all, or is it long enough that it might be useful?

That has to be folded into an understanding of turnover, or so-called “impact gardening” on the surface, which is another component of my work with Cynthia Phillips’, by the way. Kevin will be getting at that by looking at terrestrial analogs.

AM: How do you determine which biomarkers to study?

CC: There are certain chemical compounds that are commonly used as biomarkers in rocks that go back billions of years in the terrestrial past. Hopanes, for example, are viewed as biomarkers in the case of cyanobacteria. These biomarkers withstood whatever background radiation was present in those rocks from the decay of incorporated uranium, potassium, and so on, for over two billion years. That gives us a kind of empirical baseline for survivability of certain kinds of biomarkers. We want to understand how that compares to the radiation and oxidation environment on the surface of Europa, which is going to be much harsher.

Both Kevin and Max Bernstein are going to get after that question by doing laboratory simulations. Max is going to be irradiating nitrogen-containing biomarkers at very low temperatures in his laboratory apparatus, trying to understand the survivability of the biomarkers and how radiation changes them.

AM: Because even if the biomarkers don’t survive in their original form they might get transformed into another form that a spacecraft could detect?

CC: That’s potentially the case. Or they might get converted into something that is indistinguishable from meteoritic background. The point is to do the experiment and find out. And to get a good sense of the time scale.

That’s going to be important for another reason as well. The kind of terrestrial comparison I just mentioned, while I think it’s something we should know, potentially has limits because any organic molecule on the surface of Europa is in a highly oxidizing environment, where the oxygen’s getting produced by the radiation reacting with the ice. Europa’s surface is probably more oxidizing than the environment organic molecules would experience trapped in a rock on the Earth. Since Max will be doing these radiation experiments in ice, he will be able to give us a good simulation of the surface environment on Europa.

Original Source: Astrobiology Magazine

Life Found Under 1,350 Metres of Rock

Image credit: NASA

A team of scientists have discovered bacteria inside a hole that was drilled 1,350 metres into the volcanic rock near Hilo, Hawaii. The hole began in igneous rock on the Mauna Loa volcano, and then passed through lava from Mauna Kea. At 1,000 metres they encountered fractured basalt glass which formed when the lava flowed into the ocean. Upon close examination, they found that this lava had been changed by microorganisms. Using electron microscopy, they found tiny microbe spheres, and they were able to extract DNA. Scientists are finding life in more remote regions of the planet, and this gives hope that it might be on the other planets in our solar system as well.

A team of scientists has discovered bacteria in a hole drilled more than 4,000 feet deep in volcanic rock on the island of Hawaii near Hilo, in an environment they say could be analogous to conditions on Mars and other planets.

Bacteria are being discovered in some of Earth’s most inhospitable places, from miles below the ocean’s surface to deep within Arctic glaciers. The latest discovery is one of the deepest drill holes in which scientists have discovered living organisms encased within volcanic rock, said Martin R. Fisk, a professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

Results of the study were published in the December issue of Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems, a journal published by the American Geophysical Union and the Geochemical Society.

“We identified the bacteria in a core sample taken at 1,350 meters,” said Fisk, who is lead author on the article. “We think there could be bacteria living at the bottom of the hole, some 3,000 meters below the surface. If microorganisms can live in these kinds of conditions on Earth, it is conceivable they could exist below the surface on Mars as well.”

The study was funded by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology and Oregon State University, and included researchers from OSU, JPL, the Kinohi Institute in Pasadena, Calif., and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The scientists found the bacteria in core samples retrieved during a study done through the Hawaii Scientific Drilling Program, a major scientific undertaking run by the Cal Tech, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Hawaii, and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The 3,000-meter hole began in igneous rock from the Mauna Loa volcano, and eventually encountered lavas from Mauna Kea at 257 meters below the surface.

At one thousand meters, the scientists discovered most of the deposits were fractured basalt glass – or hyaloclastites – which are formed when lava flowed down the volcano and spilled into the ocean.

“When we looked at some of these hyaloclastite units, we could see they had been altered and the changes were consistent with rock that has been ‘eaten’ by microorganisms,” Fisk said.

Proving it was more difficult. Using ultraviolet fluorescence and resonance Raman spectroscopy, the scientists found the building blocks for proteins and DNA present within the basalt. They conducted chemical mapping exercises that showed phosphorus and carbon were enriched at the boundary zones between clay and basaltic glass – another sign of bacterial activity.

They then used electron microscopy that revealed tiny (two- to three-micrometer) spheres that looked like microbes in those same parts of the rock that contained the DNA and protein building blocks. There also was a significant difference in the levels of carbon, phosphorous, chloride and magnesium compared to unoccupied neighboring regions of basalt.

Finally, they removed DNA from a crushed sample of the rock and found that it had come from novel types of microorganisms. These unusual organisms are similar to ones collected from below the sea floor, from deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and from the deepest part of the ocean – the Mariana Trench.

“When you put all of those things together,” Fisk said, “it is a very strong indication of the presence of microorganisms. The evidence also points to microbes that were living deep in the Earth, and not just dead microbes that have found their way into the rocks.”

The study is important, researchers say, because it provides scientists with another theory about where life may be found on other planets. Microorganisms in subsurface environments on our own planet comprise a significant fraction of the Earth’s biomass, with estimates ranging from 5 percent to 50 percent, the researchers point out.

Bacteria also grow in some rather inhospitable places.

Five years ago, in a study published in Science, Fisk and OSU microbiologist Steve Giovannoni described evidence they uncovered of rock-eating microbes living nearly a mile beneath the ocean floor. The microbial fossils they found in miles of core samples came from the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. Fisk said he became curious about the possibility of life after looking at swirling tracks and trails etched into the basalt.

Basalt rocks have all of the elements for life including carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen, and need only water to complete the formula.

“Under these conditions, microbes could live beneath any rocky planet,” Fisk said. “It would be conceivable to find life inside of Mars, within a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, or even on a comet containing ice crystals that gets warmed up when the comet passes by the sun.”

Water is a key ingredient, so one key to finding life on other planets is determining how deep the ground is frozen. Dig down deep enough, the scientists say, and that’s where you may find life.

Such studies are not simple, said Michael Storrie-Lombardi, executive director of the Kinohi Institute. They require expertise in oceanography, astrobiology, geochemistry, microbiology, biochemistry and spectroscopy.

“The interplay between life and its surrounding environment is amazingly complex,” Storrie-Lombardi said, “and detecting the signatures of living systems in Dr. Fisk’s study demanded close cooperation among scientists in multiple disciplines – and resources from multiple institutions.

“That same cooperation and communication will be vital as we begin to search for signs of life below the surface of Mars, or on the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.”

Original Source: OSU News Release

Is Life the Rule or the Exception?

Image credit: ESA

Some scientists have theorized that life on Earth began when amino acids, the building blocks of life, were delivered from space by comets and asteroids. The European Space Agency is planning two missions to help gather more evidence. Rosetta, due for launch in 2003, will study the composition of gas and dust released from a comet to sense what kinds of organic molecules they contain, while Herschel, due for launch in 2007 will focus on the chemistry of interstellar space, searching for traces of the material in distant clouds of dust.

Is life a highly improbable event, or is it rather the inevitable consequence of a rich chemical soup available everywhere in the cosmos? Scientists have recently found new evidence that amino acids, the ‘building-blocks’ of life, can form not only in comets and asteroids, but also in the interstellar space.

This result is consistent with (although of course does not prove) the theory that the main ingredients for life came from outer space, and therefore that chemical processes leading to life are likely to have occurred elsewhere. This reinforces the interest in an already ‘hot’ research field, astrochemistry. ESA’s forthcoming missions Rosetta and Herschel will provide a wealth of new information for this topic.

Amino acids are the ‘bricks’ of the proteins, and proteins are a type of compound present in all living organisms. Amino acids have been found in meteorites that have landed on Earth, but never in space. In meteorites amino acids are generally thought to have been produced soon after the formation of the Solar System, by the action of aqueous fluids on comets and asteroids – objects whose fragments became today’s meteorites. However, new results published recently in Nature by two independent groups show evidence that amino acids can also form in space.

Between stars there are huge clouds of gas and dust, the dust consisting of tiny grains typically smaller than a millionth of a millimetre. The teams reporting the new results, led by a United States group and a European group, reproduced the physical steps leading to the formation of these grains in the interstellar clouds in their laboratories, and found that amino acids formed spontaneously in the resulting artificial grains.

The researchers started with water and a variety of simple molecules that are known to exist in the ‘real’ clouds, such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide. Although these initial ingredients were not exactly the same in each experiment, both groups ‘cooked’ them in a similar way. In specific chambers in the laboratory they reproduced the common conditions of temperature and pressure known to exist in interstellar clouds, which is, by the way, quite different from our ‘normal’ conditions. Interstellar clouds have a temperature of 260 ?C below zero, and the pressure is also very low (almost zero). Great care was taken to exclude contamination. As a result, grains analogous to those in the clouds were formed.

The researchers illuminated the artificial grains with ultraviolet radiation, a process that typically triggers chemical reactions between molecules and that also happens naturally in the real clouds. When they analysed the chemical composition of the grains, they found that amino acids had formed. The United States team detected glycine, alanine and serine, while the European team listed up to 16 amino acids. The differences are not considered relevant since they can be attributed to differences in the initial ingredients. According to the authors, what is relevant is the demonstration that amino acids can indeed form in space, as a by-product of chemical processes that take place naturally in the interstellar clouds of gas and dust.

Max P. Bernstein from the United States team points out that the gas and dust in the interstellar clouds serve as ‘raw material’ to build stars and planetary systems such as our own. These clouds “are thousands of light years across; they are vast, ubiquitous, chemical reactors. As the materials from which all stellar systems are made pass through such clouds, amino acids should have been incorporated into all other planetary systems, and thus been available for the origin of life.”

The view of life as a common event would therefore be favoured by these results. However, many doubts remain. For example, can these results really be a clue to what happened about four billion years ago on the early Earth? Can researchers be truly confident that the conditions they recreate are those in the interstellar space?

Guillermo M. Mu?oz Caro from the European team writes “several parameters still need to be better constrained (…) before a reliable estimation on the extraterrestrial delivery of amino acids to the early Earth can be made. To this end, in situ analysis of cometary material will be performed in the near future by space probes such as Rosetta …”

The intention for ESA’s spacecraft Rosetta is to provide key data for this question. Rosetta, to be launched next year, will be the first mission ever to orbit and land on a comet, namely Comet 46P/Wirtanen. Starting in 2011, Rosetta will have two years to examine in deep detail the chemical composition of the comet.

As Rosetta’s project scientist Gerhard Schwehm has stated, “Rosetta will carry sophisticated payloads that will study the composition of the dust and gas released from the comet’s nucleus and help to answer the question: did comets bring water and organics to Earth?”

If amino acids can also form in the space amid the stars, as the new evidence suggests, research should also focus on the chemistry in the interstellar space. This is exactly one of the main goals of the astronomers preparing for ESA’s space telescope Herschel.

Herschel, with its impressive mirror of 3.5 metres in diameter (the largest of any imaging space telescope) is due to be launched in 2007. One of its strengths is that it will ‘see’ a kind of radiation that has never been detected before. This radiation is far-infrared and submillimetre light, precisely what you need to detect if you are searching for complex chemical compounds such as the organic molecules.

Original Source: ESA News Release