10 October 2001
University of Bradford PhD student Emma Newton (pictured left) is playing a part in helping NASA's planned exploration of Mars in 2005, a trip which many people hope will lead to discovering life on the planet.
Emma works in the Department of Chemical and Forensic Sciences studying lichens and cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) for the purpose of understanding the survival strategies adopted by life in the Antarctic. Scientists at NASA hope this type of work will provide a basis for studying any life forms on Mars, as the Antarctic provides one of the nearest Earth analogues to Mars.
Mars is a barren, rocky planet, unprotected from ultraviolet rays, freezing temperatures and sandstorms. Ice caps cover the poles, towering volcanoes and river-like channels and craters litter its surface. But, scientists believe that Mars did once have an atmosphere similar to that of Earth. Although Emma is at the cutting edge of science, she has her feet planted firmly on the ground.
She said: "Following the excitement created in the 1970s by the Viking Lander team, people have been interested in how life adapts to harsh climates. Scientists are therefore trying to figure out what kind of survival strategies microorganisms like lichens and cyanobacteria have developed in extreme climates like the Antarctic.
"We know that Mars used to be much warmer than it is now and had vast oceans but the water was then lost, leaving the surface extremely dry. The Antarctic has a similar environment to that proposed for early Mars and microorganisms similar to those we see in Antarctica may have had time to develop on Mars. Of course, this is a controversial idea, because many people do not agree that there was sufficient time for life to develop there. It is possible though, that signs of such life (biosignatures) could be preserved in sediments like those found at the bottom of Antarctic lakes. "
The University is currently working with the University of Montana, Detection Limit and Dr David Wynn-Williams of British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on a project to send a miniature version of an FT-Raman spectrometer to Mars. Raman spectroscopy is a non-destructive laser technique which allows scientists to look at molecular vibration of materials and so investigate living systems without damaging the surrounding environment. NASA has contracted the project out to several groups but only the most successful ideas will be chosen for the trip, planned for 2005.
The teams are faced with a tremendous challenge - the ambitious plans involve decreasing the weight of the equipment from a laboratory system of several kilos to just a few grams. Scientists at NASA plan to include the Raman spectrometer on a martian lander, which will seek to obtain information from beneath the surface. If all goes to plan, they hope this will reveal whether life existed on Mars.
When asked how she would feel to be involved in a project picked to go to Mars, she said: "It would be amazing to know I was there at the start of it all. Obviously the bigger picture is very exciting, but when you are involved in your research it is sometimes difficult to see how far it can be taken."
Emma is currently continuing the work of two Bradford PhD students, Nicola Russell and Jacci Holder, who previously used Raman spectroscopy to investigate different types of lichens from Antarctica. Emma works with her supervisor; Professor Howell Edwards, and Dr David Wynn-Williams of the BAS, based in Cambridge, who is able to provide samples from the cold climate of the Antarctic for her to study. Both the University and BAS are interested in finding out how these two microorganisms survive in such a harsh environment; where extreme winds take out the moisture in the air and high levels of UV radiation penetrate the ozone-depleted atmosphere.
Emma said: "Whereas some microbial communities live on the rock surface and use sunscreen pigments to protect themselves, others can live within the rocks themselves. These are known as endolithic and it can be pretty difficult to get a look at them. Raman spectroscopy makes it possible for us to examine these communities without damaging either the microbes or their habitat".
Over the last three years, Emma has advanced the studies of Russell and Holder and expanded the research to include cyanobacteria. She is obviously passionate about her work.
She said: "It is really enjoyable. I've been lucky enough to be able to work within the fairly new field of astrobiology, which is very varied and involves many disciplines. Being involved in research and seeing new discoveries is certainly fulfilling and I am looking forward to seeing what emerges over the next few decades."
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Last updated 10 October 2001
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