Environments on Other Planets and Earth One and the Same?
New NSF funding initiative seeks answers
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What do boiling-hot fissures in the earth's crust, the insides of airplane fuel tanks, vast expanses of ice in Antarctica and the parched sands of baking deserts have in common with environments on other planets?
Scientists taking part in a new National Science Foundation (NSF) funding initiative, Life in Extreme Environments (LExEn), hope soon to discover answers.
Total funding of $6 million is being provided by NSF's Directorates of Biological Sciences; Engineering; Geosciences; Mathematical and Physical Sciences; and Office of Polar Programs to explore the relationships between organisms and the environments in which they exist. A strong emphasis will be placed on environments that are near the extremes of conditions on earth. The program will also fund research about our solar system and beyond, to help identify possible new sites for life beyond earth.
Fact: Extreme environments on earth and their associated life forms currently known to science include: sandstone rocks and cryptoendolithic organisms (lichens and cyanobacteria) living in winter temperatures of minus 45 degrees Centigrade; seafloor hydrothermal vents and bacterial mats; and ice fields with viable yeasts found some 2,500 meters deep and 200,000 years old.
"Life flourishes on the earth in an incredibly wide range of environments," explains Mike Purdy, coordinator of the new NSF initiative. "These environments may be analogous to the harsh conditions that exist now, or have existed, on Earth and other planets. The study of microbial life forms and the extreme environments they inhabit can provide new insights into how these organisms adapted to diverse environments, and shed light on the limits within which life can exist."
Fact: Life thrives in such inhospitable places on earth as hot pools at Yellowstone National Park; hot acid fields in Iceland; and saline pools in Greece.
"We believe that the study of extreme environments on earth, and the life they support, is the most effective way of understanding how and where life may exist on other planets," says Purdy.
Scientists will study environments such as the earth's hydrothermal systems, sea ice and ice sheets, anoxic habitats, hypersaline lakes, high altitude or polar deserts, and human-engineered environments such as those created for industrial processes.
Fact: Initial estimates of earth's biomass beneath its surface exceed that of biomass on its surface.
Projects will involve finding techniques for isolating and culturing microbes found in extreme environments, developing methods of studying these microbes in their natural habitats, and devising technologies for recovering non-contaminated samples. Building sensors capable of probing extreme environments, developing methods of studying ancient microbial life and paleo-environmental conditions on earth and researching new ways of studying other planets are other areas of emphasis.
Fact: Fewer than 3,500 distinct bacteria have been identified on earth, but estimates are that there may be a million more types alive today on our planet. Those already discovered exist at extremes of the pH scale, in high-salt environments, and at subfreezing temperatures. Amazingly, oxygen is poisonous to some of them.
Research supported by LExEn is expected to lead to the discovery of a diverse group of microorganisms, say scientists, the lifestyles and biology of which may now only be guessed at.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.
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