Jun 29, 1999

Life on the Edge Update

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Science@NASA sled dogs brave spring storms and wily marmots to recover microbes from California's White Mountains.


Sled dogs cross the White Mountains in May, 1999
June 29, 1999: On May 26, 1999, astronomer Tony Phillips and his team of Siberian Huskies successfully mushed to the top of California's White Mountains to retrieve yeast and other microorganisms left there earlier this year as part of NASA/Marshall's Life on the Edge education initiative. The yeast packets are now on their way to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for testing and distribution to classrooms around the world.

Right: Phillips and his team of six sled dogs approach the snow line near 12,000 ft on a blustery spring day in the White Mountains. Photo Credit: Paul King, BBC Science Mysteries.

Life on the Edge is a program that aims to teach grade school students about one of the newest, exciting disciplines in modern science -- astrobiology and the study of life in extreme environments.

During the past 20 years, scientists have come to realize that life can exist in remarkable places such as scalding hot geothermal vents, Antarctic ice, and even inside a nuclear reactor! The discovery of "extremophiles," or microbes that thrive in extreme environments, here on Earth has convinced many scientists that simple forms of life might one day be found on other planets in our Solar System that were previously thought to be too hostile for life as we know it.
Students demonstrate Mercury in a Bottle
Left: 3rd grade students in Bishop California demonstrate a Life on the Edge classroom protocol called Planets in a Bottle.

Many of these exciting developments in astrobiology are relatively unknown in public schools. Life on the Edge is intended to remedy that. The basic idea of the program is to expose a variety of interesting, but benign microbes to real-life harsh environments on Earth, to retrieve the microbes after a suitable period of exposure, and finally to distribute them to grade school classrooms. Students can then perform original experiments on their microorganisms to evaluate how well they survived their "ordeal" and to explore which environmental factors were most important to the health (or demise) of the samples.

"We want the students to be exposed to NASA research, and to think about issues related to life in extreme environments that might not otherwise come to light," says Dr. John Horack, who leads Science Communications at the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center and is an Associate Director for the Science and Technology Directorate. "One example might be the role of water in supporting life. Liquid water is very important to life forms on Earth, but it isn't equally abundant on every other planet in the solar system - if it's even there at all."

Microbes can remain viable in the absence of water (the Surveyor 3 microbes on the Moon are a good example) but do they mate, divide, and metabolize? Are they really and truly engaged in the business of "life?" What kinds of other environments can they survive?

"These are the kinds of questions we want kids to think about and work through in their own minds," Horack noted. "And simple dried yeast is an excellent and very safe organism for these kids to work with and explore."


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The program began In January 1999 when 50 pounds of yeast were delivered to a summit in California's White Mountains. Conditions there present severe challenges for most forms of life, so it is a good place to test the response of microbes to extreme environments.

"Life on the Edge is just getting started," continued Horack. "This year we field-tested some of our ideas in the White Mountains. We had to answer questions like 'Does the yeast canister really establish thermal contact between the microbes and the ambient environment?' And 'Can we design a vessel that exposed the microbes to a fuller range of environmental factors [like wind, humidity, and competition with local life forms] without the yeast blowing away?'

"Our preliminary feedback from students has been exceptional, and I expect we'll continue to work in the Whites for years to come," he continued, "but we'd also like to expand Life on the Edge to include other places like the Alaskan tundra, Mono Lake, and even the South Pole."
pure oxygen reduces 
the effects of altitude sickness
Right: A BBC cameraman takes a breather at Barcroft Station (12,500 ft) in the White Mountains. Breathing pure oxygen can briefly ameliorate the symptoms of altitude sickness, which include headaches, disorientation, and nausea. Photo Credit: Paul King, BBC Science Mysteries.

When the yeast packets were conveyed to the White Mountains in early 1999, it was bitterly cold and the snow line was near 9000 ft elevation. When Phillips and his team returned in late May, a warm La Nina-driven spring had raised the snow line all the way up to 12,000 ft.

"Spring sledding can be really challenging," said Tony Phillips. "For one thing, it's warm. Up in the Whites that means the thermometer's hovering around freezing and it's only snowing a little bit. Huskies love to pull when the temperature is about 30 degrees below zero, so a 2000 or 3000 ft ascent in freezing (32o F) weather was hot work for them."


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"The only time they pulled with their usual energy was when they smelled a marmot. Yellow-bellied marmots are small (15 - 24 inches long) furry mammals that live in the mountains all over Central California. They usually hibernate from early fall until March, then they disappear again in June to sleep away the hottest summer months. Of course, there are no marmots at the 14,000 ft summit, but we saw dozens at lower elevations. To be absolutely truthful, I should say that the dogs saw them. I only knew when we passed one because the dogs would suddenly veer off the trail and send the sled catapulting over the big rocks that were beginning to emerge from the melting snow. On one occasion they left me behind, flat on my back. The only reason I caught the team was that they had cornered a marmot under a rock and were fighting over who got to go in after it. They never caught a single marmot but they nearly killed me.

"Honestly, the best part of Life on the Edge is that it's so much fun," concluded Phillips.

White Mountain yeast packets will be distributed to participating educators during the summer of 1999 in time for the 1999-2000 school year. Click for more information about how to participate.
We're looking
for a few good experiments!
We're looking for a few good volunteers

During the summer of 1999, we'll begin distributing yeast packets to participating schools (including home schools) in time for the 1999-2000 school year. If you have an interest in learning about life in extreme environments, you can sign up to receive a sample packet of microbes returned from the White Mountain summit. What does it cost? Nothing! We'll simply ask that you try out some of our classroom-safe lab protocols and give us your feedback. If you're interested please sign up for our Partners in Discovery program.
Life on the Edge is a collaborative educational project being developed between NASA/Marshall Science and Technology Directorate and the University of California White Mountain Research Station (WMRS). Participants include Richard Hoover, Tony Phillips, John Horack, and Dale Watring of NASA; Dave Trydahl, Joe Szewczak, and Susan Szewczak of the WMRS.



Life on the Edge FAQ


What is Life on the Edge? Why study life in extreme environments? How do I become involved?

The answers to these and many other questions about Life on the Edge may be found on our Frequently Asked Questions web page.


Web Links

The White Mountain Research Station - from the University of California

The Star Trails Society - join NASA as a Partner in Discovery

NASA/Ames Astrobiology Web Site -- something for everyone interested in astrobiology

NASA Astrobiology Institute -- dedicated to astrobiology research and the training of young scientists

Related Stories:

Planets in a Bottle -- Mar. 16, 1999, Life on the Edge enters the classroom.

Sled dogs carry astrobiology to dizzying heights -- Mar. 11, 1999, Siberian huskies carry a 50 lb container of yeast and other microbes to a 13,000 summit in California's White Mountains.

Life on the Edge -- Jan. 13, 1999, an educational initiative to teach students about life in extreme environments

Unearthing clues to Martian fossils -- June 11, 1999, The search for signs of ancient life on Mars leads scientists to an other worldly place called Mono Lake

Who wrote the Book of Life? -- May 28, 1999, NASA scientists teach computers to recognize life when they "see" it.

Search for life on Mars will start in Siberia -- May 27, 1999, Russian and NASA scientists will look for life forms in the inhospitable realm of Siberian permafrost.

The Sagan Criteria for Life Revisited -- May 21, 1999, Galileo's 1990 close encounter with Earth framed some difficult questions for astrobiologists.

The frosty plains of Europa -- Dec. 3, 1998, new evidence for water on Jupiter's moon.

Callisto makes a big splash -- Oct. 22, 1998, Scientists may have discovered a salty ocean on Jupiter's moon

Great Bugs of Fire -- Sep. 16, 1998, NASA sends volcano-loving microbes into orbit for materials science research.

Earth microbes on the Moon -- Sep. 1, 1998, Three decades after Apollo 12, a remarkable colony of lunar survivors revisited.

Exotic-looking microbes turn up in ancient Antarctic ice -- Mar. 12, 1998, microbes in the ice above Lake Vostok


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For more information, please contact:
Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Linda Porter
NASA Official: John M. Horack