Airdate: Mar 12, 1999
Scientist: Chris McKay
The organisms which survive in Antarctic climes may provide clues in NASA's search for extra-terrestrial life.
As scientists wonder what forms of life could be inhabiting other planets, they're finding clues right here on Earth. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.
"I'm interested in the extreme environments that are relevant to the other planets. NASA's interested in searching for life on other planets. Mars is of particular interest. And what Mars is is it's cold and dry. And so the extreme environments that I'm interested in are those that are very cold and very dry."
Chris McKay is with the Space Science Division at NASA's Ames Research Center. He spends much of his time in regions of Antarctica where liquid water is scarce and there are few forms of life. But the organisms that do survive in Antarctica could be indicators of what life might have existed on Mars billions of years ago when it's thought that water flowed over the Martian surface.
"The most interesting thing about these organisms from the Antarctic is that they live inside rocks in an environment that we would think would be too inhospitable to support life. An environment that's too Mars-like to support life. Inside the Antarctic rocks we find lichen growing. And lichen is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an algae growing together. In addition we find some free living algae and bacteria as well. And living inside the rocks, the organisms can get liquid water and get warmth in an environment that on the outside would be too dry and too cold to support life. These are, I think, the organisms that are champions on Earth in living in cold, dry environments-- most likely to succeed on Mars."
We'll hear more on NASA's search for the origins and evolution of life in the universe in future programs.
Pulse of the Planet is presented by the American Museum of Natural History. Additional funding for this series has been provided by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.