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What Comes From the Sky?
September 18, 2006 17:20

Is there any life on Mars? What is the origin of life on our planet? Scientists, who study permafrost, appear to have surprising answers to these questions.

Professor David Abramovich Gilichinsky (the head of soil cryology laboratory of RAS’s institute of physicochemical and biological problems of soil science) claims there exists a direct correlation between Mars and cryological research – Earth’s polar regions serve as a model of Solar system’s planets, seven out of nine of which are of cryogenic type.

Fellows from said laboratory have discovered diverse microbial population in cores of frozen rocks of both hemispheres. These microbes inhabit rocks as cold as -20 in West Siberia and -270 in Antarctic polar deserts. The oldest samples are about 5 million years old (Antarctic region). The same pattern can be observed on Mars. If we suggest life existed there once, then its cell traces should have remained in permafrost. Mars is considered to be rich in water, frozen water, of course – this fact is proved by the HEND device, designed by Russian physicists from the Institute of Space Research and installed on the America “MARS-ODYSSEI” ship. Water, no matter frozen or not, means life on the cellular level. Cryobiologists do not expect to find aerobes, because Mars lacks oxygen, but they hope to find anaerobic microorganisms – those, able to live on CO2 and other compounds. Now scientists are developing original technologies for taking samples of Martian soil and rocks – they should know what results to expect.

 As for permafrost and origin of life – there is a direct correlation. A new branch of science – astrobiology, which deals with life search among other problems – is quickly developing in biological research institutions all over the world. Humanity still lacks the exact theory of life’s origin on our planet. Living cells could have arrived at the Earth from space and other planets via meteorites. Arctic and Antarctic permafrost is an ideal conservation site for meteorites, which could contain traces of life. What do alien microbes mean to us, when the permafrost melts? Soil cryology laboratory has won a contest to perform following experiments within BIOPAN project of European Space Agency – a capsule for biological experiments is located outside the “Photon” satellite, and samples of frozen rocks with their biota are placed there. Then the capsule opens, and samples become exposed to space radiation, etc. Control rock samples stay on Earth; some of them are irradiated after diversity, abundance and activity of said biota are measured – the aim is to find out biota’s reaction to low temperatures and radiation.

 After described samples returned to Earth, think-tank of the laboratory has compared microbe population of control and “space” samples and found that microorganisms that survived the “space stress” have changed considerably – both in abundance and diversity. Cells that degraded very much would have died, if the experiment lasted a bit longer than 15 days. But biologists tend to think that more cells would have survived, if the container walls have been a bit thicker. Thus, there still is the chance that life came to Earth from outer space – the answer will be more obvious in 2007, when the experiment is repeated in thicker container.

Professor Gilichinsky and his colleagues have published over 50 papers in leading international peer reviewed journals, including Science, and induced discussions in scientific circles around the world. The laboratory is a leader in cryological research and actively cooperates with international scientists, NASA and NSF, first of all. Russian scientists plan to perform DNA analysis of the biota to detect any possible changes and to find out reasons of microbes’ degradation – we are looking forward to their new publications.


Anna Kizilova


Tags: Space     

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