NASA May Have Accidentally Brought Life to Mars

  • Martian life may have originated in a moldy corner of your bathroom.

We’ve seen many kinds of Martians in speculative fiction over the years. They’ve been little green men, slightly bigger gray aliens, something that gets killed by a flu virus, and any number of other incomprehensible lifeforms.

But that’s all just fiction. Everybody knows there’s nothing actually living on Mars… Right?

Well, we haven’t found any native Martian life yet. But according to at least one scientist, we may have unintentionally brought life to Mars.

According to Christopher Mason, a professor of genomics, physiology, and biophysics at Cornell University, there’s a chance that some form of terrestrial life has traveled to Mars on exploration equipment. In a recent opinion piece, he writes that it may even learn to live on the Red Planet.

“Microbes could potentially hitchhike their way to Mars, even after radiation and sterilization procedures,” argues Mason.

“Their genomes may change so much that they look truly otherworldly,” he adds.

We’ve actually already seen that happen. Bacteria found on the International Space Station had changed enough in genetic structure that it could’ve fooled someone into believing that it was from outer space.

“If these types of species were found in the Martian soil, it could potentially spark misguided research into the universal features of life or Martian life,” Mason warns.

“Houston, I am contaminated.”

Clean and Scrub

Of course, the smart people at Nasa are aware that there might be some tiny stowaways on their equipment. That’s why everything launched to Mars goes through a rigorous cleaning and sterilization process.

Everything that goes into space – including Perseverance, the latest Mars rover – is built in a cleanroom. These rooms have strict controls on the atmosphere and biological contamination, including air filters and sterilized gowns for employees.

NASA personnel build space equipment in these labs one layer at a time, “like an onion,” says Mason. Every layer is painstakingly cleaned before the next one is laid down on top of it.

However, there’s no such thing as a completely sterile environment. No matter how much they try, NASA can’t keep every single bacterium, virus, or spore from getting on their fancy gadgets.

That means that NASA’s saferoom procedures are less about complete elimination of life and instead more about restricting it. An ideal piece of space gear has no more than a few hundred particles per square foot.

An Evolutionary Turbo Boost

Unfortunately, according to Mason, the cleanrooms might actually be doing the opposite that they’re supposed to. Sure, they sterilization measures might kill 99.9% of all organisms, but it’s the remaining 0.1% that’s the problem.

Not only can these organisms survive the cleaning process, but they might actually come out stronger, Mason warns.

“It turns out that clean rooms might serve as an evolutionary selection process for the hardiest bugs that then may have a greater chance of surviving a journey to Mars,” he writes.

It makes sense. If some bacteria or fungi can survive the radiation, freezing, and who know what else that NASA throws at them, why couldn’t they survive in space as well?

Waste of Money and Life

But what’s the big issue? So what if some kind of a mold made it to Mars on the Perseverance?

Well, first of all, it might waste money. Imagine the excitement if scientists suddenly thought they found an actual Martian fungus.

They would then spend millions to get the sample back to Earth to study. And then they find out that, oops… This is just your regular bathroom mold that somehow made it through outer space.

Mason argues that if we do find some form of life on Mars, there’s already a very good chance that we brought it there in the first place.

“Ever since the first two Soviet probes landed on the Martian surface in 1971, followed by the US Viking 1 lander in 1976, there likely have been some fragments of microbial, and maybe human DNA, on the Red Planet,” he says.

An even bigger issue could rear its head in the case of an eventual manned Mars mission.

“Microbes carried into space can also be of more immediate concern to astronauts – posing a risk to their health and perhaps even causing life-support equipment to malfunction if they become gummed up with colonies of microorganisms,” Mason writes.

Help from Fungi

It’s not all bad, though. While microbes might be dangerous for life-support equipment, they could also help make life easier for future Mars explorers.

Mason argues that if, or when, mankind lands on Mars, we will inevitably bring with us all manners of bacteria and spores.

“These microbes too will likely adapt, mutate, and change. And we can learn from them too,” writes Mason.

“They may even make life on Mars more tolerable for those who go there, since the unique genomes adapting to the Martian environment could be sequenced, transmitted back to Earth for further characterization, and then utilized for therapeutics and research on both planets.”

As long as space radiation or some weird Mars stuff doesn’t transform the microbes into some kind of man-eating super bacteria, first.

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