May 27, 1999

The search for life on Mars will begin in Siberia

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Search for life on Mars will start in Siberia

NASA funds permafrost study
to support astrobiology research

see caption
May 27, 1999: NASA and Russian scientists have been selected to take the search for life in the solar system to the frozen reaches of Earth. Richard Hoover of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and Prof. Elena A. Vorobyova of Moscow State University will investigate the microbiota found in the permafrost and ice of Siberia, Alaska, and Antarctica.

NASA's Office of Space Science has announced that their proposal, Permafrost as Microbial Habitat - in-situ Investigation, was one of 18 chosen from 123 proposals submitted for funding under the Joint U.S./Russian Research in Space Science (JURRISS) Program.

Right: Hoover displays growing moss that remained alive yet dormant while frozen for 40,000 years in the permafrost of the Kolyma Lowlands of northeastern Siberia. The sample was provided by David A. Gilichinsky and Elena A. Vorobyova of the Institute of Soil Science and Photosynthesis, Russian Academy of Sciences. Links to

. Credit: NASA/Marshall.

"The microorganisms found in the permafrost, glaciers, and polar ice caps of Earth are of profound significance to astrobiology," Hoover said . "Dormant ancient microbes, and even higher plants such as moss, can remain viable by cryopreservation, resuming metabolic activity upon thawing after being frozen in glacial ice or permafrost for thousands to millions of years.


One of the startling finds by the Galileo orbiter during its flybys of Europa, Jupiter's third largest moon, is that the planetoid is covered with massive ice rafts that appear to be in constant motion (left), implying that liquid water is below the surface. The size of the rafts can be seen by comparing it with a space image of San Francisco (right) at the same scale. Credit: NASA/JPL

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"The microbial extremophiles in the Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and permafrost represent analogues for cells that might be encountered in the permafrost or ice caps of Mars or other icy bodies of the solar system."

Hoover is a solar scientist by training who is applying his passion for diatoms - "nature's living jewels" - to NASA's astrobiology research. He is a co-investigator on two of the major research initiatives that NASA selected last year for its new Astrobiology Institute. Hoover's research on astromaterials is concerned with the microstructure and chemical composition of microfossils in ancient rocks and meteorites. He is collaborating on these projects with Alexei Rozanov,

director of the Institute of Paleontology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He also is examining microorganisms from 3.6 km (2.3 mi) beneath the ice sheet above Lake Vostok, Antarctica.

Left: The Viking 1 lander showed water frost or snow on Martian rocks in the early morning hours. Scientists expect that Mars has regions of permafrost where water ice has been locked in the soil for millions of years. (NASA/JPL)

Their object is to investigate the microorganisms in the permafrost - permanently frozen soil - and to establish morphological characteristics and chemical biomarkers by which these microbes can be recognized. For more than a century scientists have studied the the frozen remains of mammoths and other creatures that died and were preserved during the last ice age.

Not too hot, not too cold...

Astrobiology has highlighted the importance of extremophiles - life forms that love harsh conditions. Scientists now recognize that the realm of habitability for life - "the Goldilocks Zone" - is far larger than once believed. Life abounds in the deep hot biosphere: geysers, deep-sea hydrothermal vents and deep hot crustal rocks. The hyperthermophilic bacteria and archaea found in these regimes may hold vital keys to the origin of life. Astonishingly, living, viable and even dormant ancient microorganisms also abound in the deep cold biosphere: the polar ice caps, glaciers, permafrost and deep-sea sediments. Cold-loving and cold-tolerant microbes (psychrophiles and psychrotrophs) include archaea, bacteria, cyanobacteria and even eukaryotic microorganisms such as yeasts and diatoms.

Hoover and Vorobyova find greater import in far smaller organisms. Diatoms, bacteria, yeasts, cyanobacteria and other microorganisms may thrive in the ice and permafrost. Other microbes can be revived after being frozen for long periods. While some microbes, plants and even large mammals such as mammoth and bison are dead, they may contain magnificently preserved cellular components, DNA, RNA, proteins and enzymes.

"Icy bodies are by far the most numerous of the solar system," Hoover pointed out. "The dirty snowballs we call comets, the ice-encrusted oceans of the Jovian moons of Europa and Callisto, the icy moons of Saturn, and the polar ice caps and permafrost of Mars are of paramount importance to astrobiology. They may harbor active microorganisms; ancient microbes that remain viable in a deep anabiosis (i.e., suspended animation) or even long-dead microbes with their microstructure, biochemistry, and perhaps even genetic material preserved."

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"We are studying the microorganisms found in the Arctic and Antarctic permafrost, glaciers and ice sheets," Hoover said. "This is a very stable ecosystem because the temperature remains the same for long periods of time. The paleolife of the permafrost may hold keys to the evolution of life on Earth and the distribution of life in the cosmos."

Hoover said three types of life forms are found in permafrost: active ones that eke out a living, forms in suspended anabiosis until things get better, and the ones that simply gave up and died.

Left: Hoover examines an exotic microbe found in the deep-ice core from just above Lake Vostok in Antarctica. The image was produced using the Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope (ESEM), one of the tools that he and Vorobyova will use in their research. The sample was provided by the Institute of Microbiology, Russian Academy of Sciences. Links to . Credit: NASA/Marshall.

"We're very excited about the living microbes and plants that we have found in permafrost and on ice wedges and glaciers and the viable but long dormant, ancient microorganisms that can be cultured from the deep ice cores," Hoover said. "Even dead microbes from ancient permafrost and deep ice are tremendously interesting due to their state of preservation."

These preserved life forms (from diatoms and bacteria to mammoths) can yield genetic material for clues about how life has changed on the molecular level and provide a treasure trove of ancient enzymes, proteins, and biochemicals. The ecosystems of the ice and permafrost should provide clues to the potential for life in the permafrost or ice caps of Mars, comets, and on the ice-covered moons of Jupiter (Europa, Ganymede, Callisto) and Saturn (Miranda, Titan), among others.

Right: Of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter - Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (shown to relative scale and in order of closeness to Jupiter) - the latter three are covered with water ice which apparently floats atop liquid water. This makes them prime candidates in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL

Web Links
NASA's Astrobiology Institute, based at Ames Research Center.
Listing and abstracts for selected JURISS research projects, including Hoover's work.
13 Jan. 1999: Life on the Edge -- an educational initiative to teach students about life in extreme environments
3 Dec. 1998: The frosty plains of Europa -- new evidence for water on Jupiter's moon.
22 Oct. 1998: Callisto makes a big splash -- Scientists may have discovered a salty ocean and some ingredients for life on Jupiter's moon
16 Sep. 1998: Great Bugs of Fire -- NASA sends volcano-loving microbes into orbit for materials science research.
1 Sep. 1998: Earth microbes on the Moon -- Three decades after Apollo 12, a remarkable colony of lunar survivors revisited.
12 Mar. 1998: Exotic-looking microbes turn up in ancient Antarctic ice -- microbes in the ice above Lake Vostok
"We also need to understand glaciers to know what to look for and how to seek life on the ice caps of Mars," Hoover explained. For example, cryoconite holes can be temporary glacial micro-Edens. Cryoconite is rock debris broken from mountains and rock surfaces by the moving ice and captured in the ice.

When dark cryoconite is transported near the surface of the ice, it absorbs sunlight and becomes warm enough to melt the ice to produce a hole with liquid water, rich in minerals and nutrients from the rock dust, below the rock. For a few hours or weeks, it's springtime on the glacial ice for a world of minute diatoms, cyanobacteria, green algae, protozoa, rotifers, and even animals like tardigrades and nematodes.

To understand where to look, Hoover and Vorobyova will study the microbial content of permafrost and the structure of the interface between the soil and ice, and develop techniques that could be used in exploring Mars, Europa, comets, and other icy worlds of our Solar System.

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Author: Dave Dooling
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