NOAA's Mapping of Arctic Microbes Could Help Take the Hunt for Alien Life From Sci-Fi to Reality

Friday, 08 May 2015 - 3:03PM
Alien Life
Earth
Friday, 08 May 2015 - 3:03PM
NOAA's Mapping of Arctic Microbes Could Help Take the Hunt for Alien Life From Sci-Fi to Reality
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently undergoing a mission for "Mapping the Uncharted Diversity of Arctic Marine Microbes." From January 2015 to August 2016, scientists will be using samples of microbial life forms to create a baseline through which they can observe the possible changes in the arctic ecosystem through an understanding of the present state of the microscopic organisms. But, while the research could provide vital learnings about the ecosystems here on Earth, it could also lay the aid in humanity's newly invigorated search for alien life.

NOAA's mapping study is being conducted with the express purpose of gaining a better understanding of the ecosystems that exist within one of our planet's most inhospitable environments. But, not only will the study allow us a better understanding of the changing environment on Earth, it could also pay dividends in the human exploration of space. It's no coincidence that these microorganisms have been the subject of so many works of science fiction, because when it comes to exploring the possibility of life on other planets, everything must start at the very smallest end of the scale.

With NASA's planned exploration of Europa building steam, research such as the mapping being carried out in the Arctic are taking on new importance as they are applied to the search for life on Jupiter's moon and similarly icy planetary bodies . Beneath Europa's frozen crust lies a vast watery core, which many experts believe has the potential to support the existence of extraterrestrial life forms. Though the first missions to Europa will unlikely be able to make the landmark discovery of alien life, the method through which a potential search will be conducted is currently the source of great debate. One of the proposed methods involves landing a probe on Europa's frozen surface before instructing it to search for signs of organic life, called biomarkers. It's with this hunt for alien biomarkers that research into Earth's tiniest lifeforms could find particular relevance. This is a notion that has been confirmed by numerous researchers, such as Indiana University astrobiologist, Lisa Pratt, who says "If life was widespread during an early period on Mars when small lakes were common, we need to approach sampling with the expectation that pronounced variation in biological markers could occur even over distances as small as 100 meters."


Jupiter's Frozen Moon, Europa, is a Top Candidate in the Hunt For Alien Life (Credit: NASA)


Though many of our plans to search for alien life on our solar system's frozen satellites focus on breaking through their thick crusts of ice to the water beneath, or finding clues in water plumes, efforts by scientists in the arctic to create a map of the microbial organisms on earth could serve as a map for finding a common microscopic community in a comparable environment, and in a far less intrusive way.

Of course, the results of NOAA's studies are not intended to have direct applications in the vastness of space, but that's not to say that any potential findings won't prove useful to those planning NASA's future missions to Europa. By helping researchers to understand how microscopic organisms behave in a frozen ecosystem, the work being carried out in the harsh climate of Earth's Arctic could be used to refine the search for similar beings that may exist elsewhere in our solar system.

As unassuming as the humble microbe is, its importance has also been recognized by a wide number of science fiction works. Arctic microbes, and other hardy organisms, have held the key to terraforming in numerous pieces of speculative fiction, such as Spin, the 2005 Hugo Award-winning novel by Robert Charles Wilson. The first step to terraforming Mars in Wilson's novel is to introduce Earthly life to the planet in the form of "engineered microbes, whose genetic material has been spliced together from an array of organisms found surviving on some of the harshest environments on our planet. If that description sounds familiar, it's because such organisms are remarkably similar to the ones being mapped by NOAA out in the Arctic.

We may be a long way away from harnessing microbes in a manner described in  'Spin', but studies of arctic Earth life could offer NASA a blueprint that can help them better identify the type of potential alien life forms that could already be hiding on the surface of Europa, helping hone the search for alien life from the purely speculative to probable organic structures.

However, the scientists studying in the arctic should keep in mind that this mission is basically the premise for John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing. So be sure to keep an out for any wayward dogs roaming the ice.
Science
Space
Alien Life
Earth

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