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Twinkle, twinkle, little microbe

BioPhotonics
Jan 2009
Diane Laurin

For the last month, I’ve been reading a number of news reports saying that Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spaceflight, scheduled to sail in August 2010 for a three-year round-trip mission to Mars, will be packing some of the “world’s hardiest” organisms found on Earth – extremely diverse and often exploited microbes.

Phobos-Grunt will land on Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons, pick up some soil samples, and bring them back along with a payload of 31 yet-unnamed microbe specimens to Earth in 2012. The organization behind this bright idea is the Planetary Society, which is seeking to prove that live organisms can survive the journey to Mars and back. The project is called, wonderfully enough, LIFE, for Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment.

Now space missions are very hard on astronauts, equipment and payloads. But, boy, are these microbes tough. In October 2008, Planetary Society member Mark Gelfand reported how he went to San Luis Obispo, Calif., to see how the microbes did when shaken at frequencies approaching 1100 Hz, one dimension at a time, and then fired from an air cannon simulating the potential impact during an Earth landing.

“Pow! Smash! LIFE blasted into the target again,” he said. The little devils survived.

So here’s my fundamental question. What if?

What if the spacecraft goes awry and smashes into Mars? What if the microbes somehow get loose and, Martian forbid, proliferate? They’ve already proved they can withstand extreme tests of endurance. And what do they look like when they grow on another planet? The fact is these tough-as-nails microbes have already survived the cold of the tundra. Mars is very cold. You get my drift.

I have enough to worry about these days, what with a horrifying economy, creepy hot dog meat and my latest vital signs. With apologies to Michael Crichton, I don’t see how I have time to fret about microbe strains killing off the population or the appetites of large, leathery creatures. To be honest, nobody really knows what created the Blob that ate everything in its path.

Now don’t get me wrong. I do believe that the space agencies, Russia and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 are, as a group, a lot smarter than I am when it comes to responsibly propelling microbes in and out of space. Still, there’s this term called forward contamination, or cross-contamination between planets, that makes me twitch.

For the time being, I’ll let NASA, the Russians, the Planetary Society and the international media lob the contamination issues back and forth. I’m still in shock over the price of Friskies’ canned cat food. Who knows? Perhaps the best way to find life on Mars is to put it there.


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