Looking for the Coolest Life on Earth

Categories: Extreme Life

Drilling for core samples. Liane Benning and Jennifer Eigenbrode obtaining core samples in Friedrichbreen glacier, near Bockfjorden. Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

Two UK scientists are travelling to one of the coldest places on Earth to help them understand how life could exist on other planets in our solar system.

Liane Benning of the University of Leeds and Dominique Tobler of the University of Glasgow are travelling to Ny-Alesund on the island of Svalbard to investigate how the snow and ice there was first colonized by extremophiles — organisms that thrive in harsh conditions.

The team will spend two weeks on Svalbard from 6 to 20 August as part of the Europlanet Research Infrastructure’s Transnational Access Programme. The expedition is part of the larger international AMASE project, which uses extreme environments on Earth as a test-bed for technology that will be used on future NASA and ESA ‘Search for Life’ missions to Mars.

“Glacial snow and ice is a good analogue for ice and frost-covered ground at the martian poles or other icy bodies in the solar system, like Europa,” said Benning.

Hiking tubes. This is what you are expected to do if you don’t fly by helicopter to take the samples on Svalbard. Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

“Organisms that live here have evolved to thrive with very little food, large temperature fluctuations, dehydration and high levels of UV radiation. For example, snow algae make carotinoids pigments that protect them from UV radiation and cause the snow to turn bright red.

“If we can learn more about how life can form and thrive in these areas, and the survival strategies they adopt, it gives us a better chance of detecting life on other planets with similarly extreme conditions.”

To date, studies of microorganisms in the cryo-world have focused on life found in sediment-rich subglacial ice or in melt holes on the surface. Signs of life present in surface ice and snow have not been studied as extensively.

A view of the Svalbard landscape while flying by helicopter. Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

The team will collect samples from snow fields near the Ny-Alesund research station and from more remote glacial sites, which they will access by helicopter.

The samples will be filtered, preserved and shipped back to the UK for laboratory analysis. The team will also study microorganisms on site using ‘life-detection techniques’ that will allow them to determine live/dead cell counts, catalogue the biodiversity, investigate the geochemistry of inorganic samples and analyze the DNA of microorganisms.

“It’s a little like CSI in the snow,” said Benning. “Just like a forensics team investigating a crime scene, we have to make sure we are not detecting any contaminants we might have brought with us into the field.

“The sensitivity of our techniques is also key. If life does exist on other planets, it is likely to be present in very small amounts — just a few cells in a large area — so we need very sensitive equipment that can detect very small signals. If we don’t get our experiments right on the ground, they have little chance of working elsewhere in the solar system.”

Professor Benning will be blogging about her experiences on the Europlanet Outreach Website: