Microbiologist’s work to help NASA rovers detect hardy microbes

If we saw life on Mars, would we recognize it?

Microbiologist’s work to help NASA rovers detect hardy microbes 

September 28, 2018

Jim Holdenmicrobiologyan expert in high-temperature microbes, recently received a $635,000 grant from NASA to develop spectroscopy techniques to detect evidence of life beyond Earth. He will work with mineralogist Darby Dyar at Mount Holyoke College on the three-year project. 


Holden says, “Darby and I met years ago and she told me that she couldn’t recognize signs of past life in the Martian rocks that she was studying due to insufficient databases. My lab’s work in deep-sea hydrothermal vents provides microbes from extraterrestrial analog environments that will help address this question. Our funding comes from NASA’s exobiology program, which is focused on the search for life beyond Earth. They need to know what to look for and how to detect it. 

Scientists think that some of the earliest life on Earth originated near deep-sea volcanoes, where living organisms can exist without sunlight or oxygen, Holden points out. “These organisms live at very high temperatures and feed on hydrogen, carbon dioxide, sulfur and iron from the vents.” 

“We think similar environments may have existed on Mars and may still exist on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. This funding will help us develop techniques to detect and distinguish the different types of microbial life using remote sensing. The instruments are already on the Mars rovers and will likely be used on future missions to Mars and elsewhere.” 

"NASA needs to know what to look for and how to detect it." —Jim Holden


Eventually, Holden says, teams like his and Dyar’s hope to create a library for NASA so that crawling rovers on Mars or a swimming rover in the seas of Saturn or Jupiter’s moons can recognize what they are encountering. 

Holden’s graduate student Srishti Kashyap, who worked on his previous NASA grant and who now has a NASA fellowship plus a Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowship in pioneering aerospace research to support her doctoral work, will play a key role in this work. She will be joined by undergraduates and masters students on both campuses. 

Holden says that in addition to exobiology, the project has long-term applications for environmental science and in fields such as food safety and healthcare by developing techniques for the rapid detection of microbes in the environment, food and patients. 

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