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LSU Research Collaboration Takes Discover Cover

Space is generally considered to be an inhospitable, lifeless place. But, are there lifeforms that could actually survive these harsh conditions?


Not little green men, but rather microscopic organisms equipped to deal with the most hostile environments imaginable. That’s only one of the questions a research group at LSU is trying to answer, and the uniqueness of their work attracted the attention of Discover magazine. Their research is featured on the cover of the April 2012 issue of Discover, available at newsstands now.

A group of researchers including LSU physicists and biologists, more than 20 undergraduate and graduate students, plus collaborators from Southern University, Louisiana Tech, NASA-Ames and Aarhus University in Denmark, has taken the cover of Discover, one of the world’s leading popular science publications. The project, called MARSLIFE, or Modes of Adaptation, Resistance and Survival for Life Inhabiting a Freeze-dried-radiation-bathed Environment, essentially studies earthly microorganisms that tolerate conditions similar to those found in extra-terrestrial environments. 

“Determining the limits of the biosphere here on Earth is the important first step for studying life on other planets,” said Professor of Physics & Astronomy John Wefel, “and MARSLIFE is taking that step.”

Some goals of MARSLIFE include (1) investigate existing and novel microorganisms with tolerances to cold, desiccation, and radiation as models for astrobiology; (2) use laboratory simulators to assess responses of selected extremophiles to temperature, pressure, and radiation conditions that exist in a range of extraterrestrial environments; (3) characterize biological resistance mechanisms to freezing, desiccation, and radiation, and (4) improve technologies for the detection and sampling of microorganisms under conditions similar to the surface of Mars.

Sponsored by NASA EPSCoR and the LA Board of Regents, the team, led by Wefel, biologist Brent Christner and physicist Gregory Guzik, uses a scientific balloon, which starts off as relatively large, Helium-filled inflatable but, once relieved of the pressures of Earth’s atmosphere, the largest one expands to become larger than LSU’s Tiger Stadium. These balloons carry experimental payloads to sample the microbes found at various heights, and return samples to the biology labs to test the microbe’s “hardiness.”

“Scientists have used ballooning technology for more than 200 years to investigate the secrets of the universe,” said Guzik. “Modern scientific balloons allow instruments weighing thousands of pounds to be placed above 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere for extended periods of time at a fraction of the cost to put a satellite in orbit.  For MARSLIFE we are using this technology to investigate the limits of our biosphere as a function of altitude.”

Originally, members of the group worked on very different projects in the same place – Antarctica. Christner studies microbes that live in subglacial lakes on the frozen continent, while Wefel and Guzik ran scientific ballooning experimental missions there. Now, as a team, the group can test their theories much closer to home, while continuing to offer area students a unique, research-intensive experience.

“The strongly interdisciplinary and technical nature of this project provides a unique training opportunity for our students, allowing them to broaden their scientific horizons beyond the typical experiences gained during an undergraduate or graduate education,” said Christner.

“MARSLIFE is producing technologically-informed, interdisciplinary students and will have long-term benefits in nurturing the next generation of scientists in Louisiana.”

Other LSU participants include John Battista, Gary King, Frederick Rainey, Dana Browne, Jim Giammanco, Michael Stewart, Doug Granger and Brad Ellison.  Participants from area universities include Sumeet Dua and Pradeep Chowriappa of Louisiana Tech and Larry Henry from Southern University, and external advisors include Kai Finster from Aarhus University and Rocco Mancinelli and Chris McKay from NASA Ames.

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