Princeton University
Department of Molecular Biology

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From Mines to Mars, The Search for the Dark Life

Thu, Nov 17, 2005
Location - TBA


Professor of Molecular Biology


Professor Tullis Onstott of the GeoSciences Department at Princeton University spoke to over 450 students, sharing his research and adventures "From Mines to Mars and the Search for Dark Life". He coined the term "dark life" for life that does not require light. He explained that since 1997 when Viking I landed on Mars, our picture of Mars has changed dramatically. Professor Onstott shared astounding images of the surface of Mars that looked like Earths' geological features including rivers and glacial deposits. On Earth these formations require water. Water is predicted to exist on Mars locked in ice saturated rock under the surface. On Earth, life was thought to require light until the discovery of hydrothermal vents under the ocean in the 1970s. If life can exist at the bottom of the ocean, perhaps scientists should be looking below the Earth's surface. Professor Onstott began to explore the depths of South African gold mines below the Earth's surface, for signs of life. DNA is isolated from samples and sequenced and compared to known prokaryotes. New lineages have been discovered which are thermophilic and survive at pH 9. Mars appears to be in a geologically active period. Methane has been discovered on Mars, which has lead to the astrobiology mantra "follow the methane". Methane is unstable on Mars so it must be created through volcanic activity or through some form of life. A new project, searching for life under ice saturated rock in Canada is a model for Mars since experiments that are being designed for Mars, must work on Earth. Huge saline reservoirs under the ice are yielding exotic looking bacterial forms. Similar experiments on Mars are projected to be performed 2018-2020. What will they find?

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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