THE VINE JULY 28, 2008
Apropos of Dayo's earlier post on superbugs, the tiny microbes often referred to as “extremophiles” that scientists are studying for their crafty energy-processing skills, comes this piece from the Washington Post, which places the bugs at the nexus of another modern scientific challenge: the search for extraterrestrial life. The connection between biogeologists like Indiana University’s Lisa Pratt and planet-hunters like Paul Butler seems obvious: if biogeologists are able to discover bacteria thriving on the radioactive decay of nearby rocks, without exposure to sunlight for millions of years, or microbes living in 120,000 year old ice in Greenland, who’s to say there aren’t similar critters in Mars’s frozen soil, in Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes, or in the vast sea believed to be underneath Europa’s crust of ice?
Astrobiology, a relatively new field of study, has the scientists who study extremophiles at the fore in the search for alien life. Admittedly, the chance of discovering another life form is by no means imminent. Astrobiology became a formal NASA program in the mid-1990s, spurred by the discovery of a meteorite from Mars that scientists initially believed to contain fossil remains. Those claims are now generally believed to be false, but that hasn’t stopped the field from growing. And why not? The area of study has such potentially sexy ramifications.