Airship looks for 'extraterrestrial-type' life in salt ponds

The redder the ponds, the saltier the water, and the heartier the bacteria. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Freedman/ABC7)

December 28, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Aside from the commuter trains that pass though, but never stop, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is a local landscape where time feels as if it moves in reverse. It is 30,000 acres of mud, marsh, abandoned wooden buildings and colorful remains of the Cargill Salt Flats.

Now, the federal government is restoring them to wetlands, and with this transition comes scientific opportunity. "It's a wildlife area in the midst of an urban area," said Dr. Rocco Mancinelli, of the SETI Institute. But, he's looking, not so much at the many birds that alight here, as microbial organisms. "This place is teeming with life. There are millions of these organisms in a single teaspoon."

Single celled Halophiles may be the heartiest, most tenacious living things on Earth. They live, and can survive in salt for millions of years. When you see these ponds glowing red, those are the Halophiles.

"What is admirable about them is what they can survive," added Dana Rogoff, who works with Dr. Mancinelli though the Baer Institute and NASA Ames Research Center.

"They are so hearty," added Mancinelli, "That I can fly them into space, put them in a vacuum, expose them to heavy radiation, and they live."

Now, as the salty environment changes back to regular bay water, the Halophiles provide a perfect model for studying how organisms adapt to change. Mancinelli and Rogoff will monitor them, not only at ground level, but also from the air.

The scientists have mounted instruments aboard the Airship Ventures' Eureka, turning it into a unique scanning device. As the airship takes tourists above the bay, it will also fly pre-programmed grids above targeted salt ponds, noting the changes. They will correlate samples from the ground with data from spectrometers aboard the airship.

The colors of the ponds, below, indicate their salinity, thanks to the Halophiles. "Green, to orange, to pink," pointed Rogoff, as she looked down from the airship. "Green is low salinity. Orange is mid salinity. Pink is really high salinity."

In the future, she and Dr. Mancinelli hope to apply what they learn from this project to the search for extraterrestrial life, not by landing, but by looking with instruments from passing spacecraft. There is a good chance that such life might be a lot like Halophiles.

"We are interested because they are extreme organisms," said Rogoff. And, extreme organisms could be indicative of life on other planets."

Put simply, it is an entirely new way of looking at San Francisco Bay's colorful salt ponds. Now, they have become otherworldly, and in our own backyard.


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