Seeking Life Underground

About two miles below the ground in a South African gold mine, Duane Moser stands next to a fracture zone (white area) where bacteria were found. Image Credit: Li-Hung Lin.

Dr. Duane Moser, a research scientist at Nevada’s Desert Research Institute, will join an interdisciplinary team of 20 researchers and scientists from around the globe on a unique mission funded by the prestigious NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), which seeks to understand how life begins and evolves; if there is life beyond Earth; and if so, how it can be detected.

The five-year, approximately $6 million study will develop approaches and test instrumentation aimed at detecting life deep below the Earth’s surface in extreme environments like Death Valley, Nevada National Security Test Site (NNSS) and the oceanic crust.

Moser, who is based out of DRI’s Las Vegas campus and has studied the Earth’s deep biosphere for more than 15 years, will serve as a Co-Investigator on the new “Life Underground” team, led by Professor Jan Amend of the University of Southern California’s (USC) Departments of Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences.

The goal of the study, said Carl Pilcher, Director of the Astrobiology Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center, is to understand the potential for subsurface life on Earth – and beyond.

“We know remarkably little about this vast portion of Earth’s biosphere,” Pilcher said. “The ‘Life Underground’ team aims to change that. If life exists on planets with harsh surface conditions like Mars, it’s likely to exist underground. One of the first steps in understanding the potential for subsurface life on another planet is to learn about subsurface life on Earth.”

Field work will be conducted at sites around the continental United States and on the Mid-Atlantic ocean floor. Image Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); NOAA

The team also includes collaborating scientists from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Japan’s Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, and several other U.S. research institutions including Arizona State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

The study’s field work and sampling will be overseen by Moser and Co-Investigator Katrina Edwards of USC. Moser’s role will be to coordinate the land-based portion of the study with Edwards coordinating the ocean-based portion.

Field work, Moser said, will take place at specific destinations across the continental United States and on the Mid-Atlantic ocean floor – more than two and a half miles below the water’s surface, that have been selected to target a range of the Earth’s primary geological provinces.

“Our team’s ultimate goal is to adapt new life detection technologies for deployment, like a miniaturized deep UV microscope, and to learn more about the range of conditions that support life,” he explained. “As the first-of-its-kind, coordinated marine/continental program, the Life Underground study may be an initial step toward unifying subsurface geo-biology from a whole Earth perspective.”

Moser also noted the prestige of being welcomed into the very exclusive family of explorers at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and assisting with NASA’s search for life on Earth – and possibly beyond.

“To be involved with this team, at this time in history, is a real honor” he said. “Some of my heroes are on this team. They are the best in the business. To have their help in figuring out life in the comparatively obscure environments I study is a once-in-a-career opportunity. I can only begin to imagine what we’re going to find down there”.

Moser also helped coordinate a previous study, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the late 90s and early 2000s that focused on detecting native microbial life by way of the world’s deepest mines in South Africa. That research, led by Princeton Geology Professor, Tullis (TC) Onstott, established that the Earth’s biosphere extended at least 2.5 miles into the continental crust and found ancient water in hard rock fracture systems supporting a single-species ecosystem completely cut off from the energy of the sun – fueled only by natural radiochemical reactions in the uranium-rich host rock.