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From soil to the stars: microbiology informs international space policy

Copyright: NASA

BBSRC-funded research into the physical limits of life on Earth is being used by the international space community to define regions on Mars where life could exist.

The findings have been incorporated into a report from the NASA Special Regions Science Analysis Group, which is now being reviewed by COSPAR, the Committee on Space Research.

Once approved, the final report will form the basis of international planetary protection policy, which aims to prevent contamination of planetary biospheres (both the Earth and elsewhere) with alien life by providing guidance for the development of future space missions.

Data breakout

£132k Value of BBSRC responsive mode grant that started the work
2011 First contact for Dr John Hallsworth and NASA
-18°C Lowest temperature at which a microbe has been known to divide in experiments on Earth

The research, led by Dr John Hallsworth, Lecturer in Environmental Microbiology at Institute for Global Food Security (Queen’s University Belfast), found that substances known as ‘chaotropes’ can lower the minimum temperature microbes require for growth by as much as 10°C. Because chaotropic salts are present in the Martian soil the findings suggested that minimum temperature limits used to define Special Regions – i.e. areas with the potential to harbour Martian life, or where terrestrial microorganisms could replicate – may need to be revised to avoid potentially contaminating Mars with terrestrial microorganisms.

Hallsworth also contributed to a NASA special analysis group on life detection (MEPAG), which is informing the development of a NASA-ESA mission to return samples from Mars for analysis, and a NASA-Princeton University analysis group on the bioethics of searching for life.

Read the full impact evidence report:

Header image copyright: NASA