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Space Science

Mars Exploration Must Consider Contamination 333

Posted by timothy
from the or-they'd-feel-dumb dept.
letxa2000 writes: "CNN is reporting that the National Research Council has submitted a report to NASA that recommends certain precautions be taken if NASA is to send astronauts to Mars to guarantee that they don't bring back Mars-based bacteria and contaminate earth; including possibly banning the return vehicle from entering the Earth's atmosphere. What is the likelihood of bacterial life on Mars infecting the earth if we ever get around to visiting Mars in person?"
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Mars Exploration Must Consider Contamination

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  • by Mr. Shiny And New (525071) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:11AM (#3448471) Homepage Journal
    A transplanted organism with no 'predators' would be a bad thing. Just look at what happened to Australia after Bart brought his frog there.
  • While I think many of these precautions they would like to take are somewhat overly paranoid, I can't say that I disagree with them. With the possible implications running from no effect whatsever to a simple annoyance to a plague that wipes out all life on earth, I'd have to say that I too would prefer to lean on the side of caution.

    But, if we take this much care in interplanetary travel, why not spend at least this much effort on intercontinental travel. Influenza accounts for thousands or more deaths across the globe each year, and by isolating the vectors it uses to spread across continents the various strains can be isolated and cause the flu shots to be much more effective.

    I guess this is another upside to NASA- the public benefits from newly discovered technology some years down the line.

    • The fact of the matter is that preventing contamination is impossible - we have pieces of Mars rock entering our atmosphere all the time. Most bacteria is incredibly hardy - the vacuum of space and heat of re-entry are certainly survivable. Please see this essay [uga.edu], entitled "Estimated Flux of Rocks Bearing Viable Lifeforms Exchanged Between Earth and Mars". Realistically, our primary concern is with accidentally seeding Mars with Terran bacteria - if that happens, we may never know whether or not Mars had any native life.
      • Yes, well if this were to actuaklly happen there would be much more study of mars before any humans went there, and they would determine if there in fact even was bacteria there. There most likely is not, so this whole question leads me to believe that nasa is simply interested in creating some hype so that they can distract people from the fact that they are a large, slow, tired, and dead organization.
  • Martian germs scare
    the scientists at NASA
    give spacemen Lysol
  • Infecting Mars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by txtger (216161) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:16AM (#3448481) Homepage
    Another interesting possibility is that we may infect Mars. What if the astronauts get there, and some random bacteria is on their spacesuit? Or some other piece of equiptment for that matter? It 'd be like smallpox in the New World all over again. We could actually see life on Mars destroyed by our visit, before we ever actually get to see much of it.
    • re: Infecting Mars (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Catskul (323619)
      If life exists on Mars, it has to be about as simple a a bacteria. Under this assumption, there really isnt much risk that it would be wiped out by an Earth contaminant. Simple life forms adapt extremely quickly. Look how quickly bacterial adapt to antibiotics.
      • Um ... there are a great many free-living bacterial species that get their food by feeding on ... wait for it ... other bacteria. No doubt any Martian bacteria would adapt to some degree to such a threat, but I kind of suspect that the crowded, critter-eat-critter environment of Earth has produced such viciously effective predators in all niches that any organisms that evolved in a less active biosphere wouldn't have a chance.
    • What if the astronauts get there, and some random bacteria is on their spacesuit? Or some other piece of equiptment for that matter? It 'd be like smallpox in the New World all over again. We could actually see life on Mars destroyed by our visit, before we ever actually get to see much of it.

      The assumption here is that Terrestrial and Martian organisms are fundermentally the same. They could look similar but use different biochemistry (including different chirality).
      No way would the smallpox analogy hold. Since the smallpox vuirus had a long time to evolve methods of avoiding getting squashed by mammalian immune systems.
    • I thought the reason we were heading over to mars was to search for water. If we find water, we colonize and REALLY infect the red planet.

      Why is it that tree-huggers think life on earth to be so very precious as long as it stays inside our atmosphere? The global ecosystem has adapted itself to foreign asteroids impacting it, so a few new species of microbes probably won't hurt it at all. Plus, on the disease side of things, these Martian microbes will not be drug resistant, once we study them and figure out what drug to use.

      Infesting the Martian ecosystem with terrestrial life has about as bad a cost-benefit ratio as trashing the Lunar ecosystem with terrestrial industry. It'll happen anyway, and there's just not enough of it to worry about.
      • Most tree-huggers are pretty aware of how resilient nature is, and are more interested in keeping earth nice and pretty for themselves. Nothing terribly wrong with that, really. A foreign life form could sure change things around -- look what blue-green bacteria did, killed nearly *everything* else off with that noxious "oxygen" stuff -- but there's mass, gravity, sunlight ... yeah, earth would survive. We might not.
    • If there is bacteria on Mars, it is unlikely they would affect humans. When you think about it, many bacteria, and moreso viruses, are fairly host-specific. I don't think it would infect us.

      Pathogenic bacteria is unlikely to evolve on a nutrient bare place such as Mars. This is because higher forms of life, such as multicellulars, probably never evolved on mars.

      More than likely, if Mars still has life, it would be of the archaebacteria extemophile types that would be suited to Mar's exteme environment. These would not be pathogenic. Usualy, only Monera type bacteria are pathogenic.
  • Man, coincidince! I just finished reading this excellent essay on The Economic Viability of Mars Colonization [aleph.se], which convinced me that Mars missions are not actually wastes of money. They say these things come in threes, I wonder what the next one will be?

    Websurfing done right! StumbleUpon [stumbleupon.com]
  • It seems these days that everyone want's to have their cske and eat it too. We either want to send a manned misasion to mars or we don't. There are risks involved in any kind of endevor into the unknown. I don't really care about weather they bring something back with them, it couldn't possibly be worse than anything we already have here on earth.
    • A completely foreign bacteria that no one here has probably ever had any exposure and therefore, if it causes disease, we would not have antibodies to fight it. Yeahhhh makes a whole lot of sense. Sure worth the risk involved.
  • by ixt (463433) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:18AM (#3448491)
    Shouldn't we be more worried about the other way around first - the contamination of Mars by some Earthly micro-organism?
    • Oh, for sure. Now we can't have that cocktail party, what with all the martian life sick and all.

      ...
    • Shouldn't we be more worried about the other way around first - the contamination of Mars by some Earthly micro-organism?

      Depends on what you consider more worth saving - what's at best some form of alien microbial life, or 6 (7?) billion of your fellow human beings.

    • I think you'd want to take some precautions, but I wouldn't be overly concerned. The conditions on the surface of Mars are pretty lethal to Earthly life forms.

      Things you'd probably do would include sterilizing drilling equipment (if there's life on Mars, it could well be in subsurface acquifers, and Terran bacteria *might* conceivably survive in one) and heat any waste that's been kept in an atmosphere to kill any bugs that might be on it.

    • by Erris (531066)
      So what about all those landing craft we've sent there? Has toe-mung taken over the red planet? Will it smell like a big foot one day?

      As for the trip from mars to earth. It's been made too, hasn't it? You know, all those rocks from Mars that you can find in Antartica? There are various theories about how live might survive such a jouney. Has anyone proved it yet?

      Me too for the person who correctly noted that it's more important to protect human life from potential harm than it is to protect bacteria on Mars from harm. Live competes, that's the story of microbes. Tough luck to them and anti-biotics for those in you and me.

  • Lessons (Score:5, Funny)

    by SkulkCU (137480) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:19AM (#3448497) Homepage Journal

    I think great care should be taken.

    If I learned anything from the feature film Mission to Mars, it's that I should not have gone to see that movie. That, plus we have to be careful when we go to Mars. Yeah.

    My apologies to real films.
    • On the other hand, it's important to take risks; if we learned anything from Species it's that killer alien/human hybrids may be gorgeous women prone to gratituous displays of nudity.
  • There once was a germ from the red planet
    that had scientists from NASA cursing "Dammit!"
    "If we send astronauts there,"
    "We'd better take care,"
    "And from orbit, this bug, we should ban it."
  • From the article -

    "While the threat to Earth's ecosystem from the release of Martian biological agents is very low, the risk of harmful effects is not zero and cannot be ignored,"

    Wouldn't the atomosphere burn off anything that would be on the outside of the ship? And isn't the ship air-tight?

    So couldn't we just put the shuttle and crew into some kind of clean space hanger building and just quarantine/clean them?

    With minimum risk I think this would be an acceptable alternative, as opposed to impeeding the progress of a mars mission.
    • Yeah, until the black oil changes form and crawls out of the building.
  • How can we avoid it? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ProfMoriarty (518631) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:21AM (#3448505) Journal
    The only potential way of doing this, would be to do a transfer of personel in space.

    Of course the spacesuits would have to be decontaminated.

    I know ... why not have the astronauts strip in space, then float over to the awaiting spacecraft ...

    Seriously though ... can we prevent it? My bet would be that we can't be 100% guarenteed that we'd get all the bacteria/critters.


  • This may sound like a dumb one, but couldn't they plot a return trajectory that gets close enough to the Sun to irradiate or burn stuff off before re-entering Earth orbit? Maybe they would have to slingshot Venus or even Mercury, but I want to think solar radiation is the best guarantee that anything brought back from Mars is sterilized before coming home.


    If anyone knows specifics about how close you'd have to get and how long you'd have to stay there and what (if any) effect that'd have on craft and crew, please reply. It seems simple, which is why I think there must be more to it than that.

    • by Tazzy531 (456079) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:51AM (#3448626) Homepage
      Sorry..but that is a rather dumb solution.

      Remember that the distance between planets and the sun is exceptionally large. It's not like you say you go to the local pizza store on your way home from school. Whenever they try to get something close to Mars, there is a rather small window in which the planets are aligned correctly (mind you, not in a straight line, but in an orbital curve) That is the shortest distance between earth and mars. Now, what you are saying is to burn fuel so that it gets close to the sun, then turn around and burn more fuel to get away from the gravitational pull of the sun back to earth. Meanwhile doing this so that the orbit from mars, around the sun, back to earth is lined up. (Remember that nike's commercial? Over the garage, through the window, nothing but net!)

      In addition, you mention a crew. The farthest that manned space missions have gone is to the moon and back. We barely have the resources nor the technology to get to Mars, nonetheless the sun. Anything that can kill bacteria will kill humans first. So exposing the entire ship to the gamma radiations of the sun is near suicide. Secondly, you would need a huge amount of life support system to keep the humans alive for the duration of the entire trip (earth to mars, mars to sun, sun to earth)

      Now the thing here is this. You have the right idea. All in all, solar radiation can sterilize just about any bacteria that we know of. Just having a probe fly through the emptiness of space will sterilize the exterior. The part that they are concerned with is the cargo (ie, Martian rocks and stuff).
  • It amazes me that so many allegedly "educated" people have fallen so quickly and so hard for a fraudulent fabrication of such laughable proportions. The very idea that a gigantic ball of rock happens to orbit our planet, showing itself in neat, four-week cycles -- with the same side facing us all the time -- is ludicrous. Furthermore, it is an insult to common sense and a damnable affront to intellectual honesty and integrity. That people actually believe it is evidence that the liberals have wrested the last vestiges of control of our public school system from decent, God-fearing Americans (as if any further evidence was needed! Daddy's Roommate? God Almighty!)

    Documentaries such as Enemy of the State have accurately portrayed the elaborate, byzantine network of surveillance satellites that the liberals have sent into space to spy on law-abiding Americans. Equipped with technology developed by Handgun Control, Inc., these satellites have the ability to detect firearms from hundreds of kilometers up. That's right, neighbors .. the next time you're out in the backyard exercising your Second Amendment rights, the liberals will see it! These satellites are sensitive enough to tell the difference between a Colt .45 and a .38 Special! And when they detect you with a firearm, their computers cross-reference the address to figure out your name, and then an enormous database housed at Berkeley is updated with information about you.

    Of course, this all works fine during the day, but what about at night? Even the liberals can't control the rotation of the Earth to prevent nightfall from setting in (only Joshua was able to ask for that particular favor!) That's where the "mars" comes in. Powered by nuclear reactors, the "mars" is nothing more than an enormous balloon, emitting trillions of candlepower of gun-revealing light. Piloted by key members of the liberal community, the "mars" is strategically moved across the country, pointing out those who dare to make use of their God-given rights at night!

    Yes, I know this probably sounds paranoid and preposterous, but consider this. Despite what the revisionist historians tell you, there is no mention of the "mars" anywhere in literature or historical documents -- anywhere -- before 1950. That is when it was initially launched. When President Josef Kennedy, at the State of the Union address, proclaimed "We choose to go to the mars", he may as well have said "We choose to go to the weather balloon." The subsequent faking of a "mars" landing on national TV was the first step in a long history of the erosion of our constitutional rights by leftists in this country. No longer can we hide from our government when the sun goes down.
    • Shouldn't you at least mention that you are not the author of that passage, and that you merely changed occurrences of "moon" to read "mars"? Seems every time this comment is re-posted, it's never given credit, and it's always a +5 Funny. Oi.
  • Limerick (Score:2, Funny)

    by MrHat (102062)
    Mars could be full of bacteria
    Like the cold, meningitis, diptheria
    So we'll permit them to land
    But only in sand
    In some remote place like Liberia
  • by 68030 (215387)
    They'll just disappear before they ever have to
    worry about bringing anything back to contaminate
    us or them. And even if they DO manage to have
    a successful mission NASA's track history
    with things deal with Mars just screams ecological
    disaster on some level or another.

    Yay, we're doomed.
  • You can see how bad introducing an organism can be. Just look at HIV. It is believed to have originated in western Africa, where it did not affect many people. People didn't move far back then. Europeans then starting colonising the area, and supposedly brought it back to Europe. Now it is a world-wide disease. We have no idea what the effects of bringing something from Mars would be.
    • Just look at HIV. It is believed to have originated in western Africa, where it did not affect many people.
      Either you're in dire need of a recent newspaper, or we're not thinking of the same Africa. And I'm pretty sure there's only one Africa.

      --
      Damn the Emperor!
  • Sound familiar? (Score:3, Informative)

    by jokrswild (247507) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:27AM (#3448537) Homepage
    Sounds alot like the scare about bringing back "moon bacteria" back when we first landed there. Now it seems funny to us, to think that bacteria would have been on the moon. But, you never know, i guess.
  • We would find some way to send them back where they came from. Launch an unmanned Mars return vehicle (if they were already in Earth orbit - sending Progress-like automated supply vessles up with food and the like in the interim) and then send a trickle of supplies back to Mars on a regular basis to keep them alive, and perhaps reach a level of self-sustainability. (which a Mars base SHOULD and almost certainly would have in the first place)

    What might end up being rather interesting is if the contamination poses absolutely no risk to humans but is still too suspect to introduce into Earth's environment, then perhaps the stranded astronauts would live quite a long time, with the constant risk of possible additions to their ranks. Some astronauts might forgo the Depo Provera or Norpland and simply decide to risk it or may not take any birth control medications and find themselves caught up in the heat of the moment. And there is always the chance of birth control failing. (even though Depo Provera has a lower failure rate than ANYTHING - even surgical sterilization of either partner)

    So, in a while, you might get a growing colony on Mars of humans that are developed differently (due to the gravity), with radically different life experiences and are also unable to interact directly with humans from Earth.

    Quite an interesting concept.
    • So, in a while, you might get a growing colony on Mars of humans that are developed differently (due to the gravity), with radically different life experiences and are also unable to interact directly with humans from Earth.

      And really, really inbred.

      --
      Benjamin Coates
  • Hmm... meteorites from Mars bring bacterial life to Earth -> astronauts form Earth bring bacterial life to Mars -> astronauts return to Earth with fresh bacteria from Mars... ad nauseam. These little guys have been around a lot longer than us and have more than proved their mettle. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects about life on the small scale(bacteria, virus etc...) is this incredible ability to move between vastly differing environments and be successful in those new environments. Something humans and other higher order animals don't do so well.



    Refusing the spacecraft to reenter Earth's atmosphere might work for quarantining hardware, but where do we put the astronauts who return with low level infections? Will we even be able to detect such an infection?


  • Didn't they say a few years ago that probes sent up by NASA and the Russian space agency contained bacteria and other organic matters that could have potentially contaminated Mars? I think I read somewhere (can't confirm right now) that they found fossilzed earth bacteria in an Martian meteorite.
    • Didn't they say a few years ago that probes sent up by NASA and the Russian space agency contained bacteria and other organic matters that could have potentially contaminated Mars? I think I read somewhere (can't confirm right now) that they found fossilzed earth bacteria in an Martian meteorite.

      I think you're mixing up 2 stories here. Anything NASA or the USSR has sent to Mars wouldn't be anywhere close to fossilized by now - give it another few hundred thousand years (rough guess, my geology is years out of date now :).

      The possibility of Earth/Mars cross-contamination has been brought up many times, and has almost certainly happened, but the current thinking is it happens from meteorite strike ejecta - and we certainly haven't had anything hit the Earth any time recently that would be large enough to actually fling pieces of the planet towards Mars.
  • Why the concern? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by geophile (16995) <jao@geo[ ]le.com ['phi' in gap]> on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:37AM (#3448574) Homepage
    A toxin might kill an astronaut. That would be tragic, but not a disaster. The problem to be worried about is communicable disease, namely an organism (bacteria, virus) that harms the host and can spread. The organisms that work this way on this planet have evolved with us over a very long period of time. An organism that had never encountered a human before, or perhaps even earthly DNA, seems exceedingly unlikely to be communicable -- hasn't had the practice.

    Still, I have to admit, this sounds an awful lot like, "this code should work".

  • The most ironic thing is that if a person is sent to Mars, they will almost innevitably be called a 'Hero'.

    Why? Because they were able to see more than any electrical equipment? No - machines would be able to see with much greater clarity without disturbing the environment they are examining. Because they can perform actions that no machine can? No - a machine that was allowed the weight of a human being, and the environmental protection of a human being, then given the budget of a human being would be able to do thousands of times the unique experiments a human would have time to do on the first trip - and it wouldn't need to come back either.

    Now admittedly, this is more of a rant - but humans do not have any special reason to take the great pains needed to go into space to explore. Machines can, and do explore much better. Once a plan is made to make an environment outside of earth livable, and a sound plan is made, then it would be beneficial to have humans live in that environment. We do NOT need a human on Mars, nor do we need to spend the overwhelming resources needed to put a human on Mars.

    I know, I know - it's not science that drives this, and now mostly, the only way to get the budget is to send a senator or other large source of money where they want to go, and fit science in after the ego. But if we have to go this route, couldn't we just go ahead and put McDonalds and AOL ads on permanant banners on Mars instead of having to send a human? Maybe make little human robots, controlled in a sort of a battletech way by senators and rich people on earth instead.

    I'd much rather hear the press worry about the viral influence of children looking through their new high-powered telescope looking for the Pringle's ad on Phobos than the paranoia that would come from a human being sent to mars, and all that involves.

    Any other "better than sending a human" ideas?

    :^)

    Ryan Fenton
    • sending people is more expensive but it gets you more funding as well.
  • by ByteHog (247706)
    What is the likelihood of bacterial life on Mars infecting the earth if we ever get around to visiting Mars in person?

    I don't know, but I know a sure-fire way to find out!!!
  • If the memory of my middle school history class serves me right, weren't a lot of Indians killed by a plague brought along with the settlers that landed in the New World? Wasn't this plague similar to the Cold virus, or perhaps flu? Something that most of the english had immune systems over time built up for, but the Indians immune systems had absolutely no way to deal with it, and it became an epidemic.

    If there is even a remotely possiblity of any kind of bacteria/virual form of life existing on mars, we must be extremely careful. The bacteria/virus could potentially be so radically different than any strand here on earth, it could potentially wipe out entire species..

    Then again, if not it'll make a good movie, I suggest casting Bruce Willis to lead a team of doctors to mars to attempt to find a "counter-virus."
    • ---"Then again, if not it'll make a good movie, I suggest casting Bruce Willis to lead a team of doctors to mars to attempt to find a "counter-virus."
      "---

      Will it have Willis hitting golf balls at passing cosmonauts?
    • The Indians and the English were both human (well, the English at least evolved into something vaguely human ;) ). Yes, diseases can change from species to species, but find me one that can jump from amoeba to human without any intermediate steps - because we're more than likely more closely related to an amoeba than any potential disease host you'd find on Mars.

      Yes, some precautions are justified, but I'm not losing too much sleep over the risk.

  • Compatibility Issues (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pete-classic (75983) <hutnick@gmail.com> on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:50AM (#3448621) Homepage Journal
    I think that taking reasonable precautions is prudent.

    But let's be serious. I enjoyed "The Andromeda Strain" as much as the next guy, but I don't think this is very realistic. A chimp can't catch a cold from me. I can only play host to a limited number of bacteria that a lizard is susceptible to. And they want me to believe that there may be some man-killer bacteria on Mars? Even if you're one of these nutters who thinks that big headed grey dudes seeded our solar system with their DNA, why would you think a flesh-eating bacterium would evolve on a planted WITH NO FLESHY BEINGS?

    I think we're all just a bit too eager to see Data dork Yar.

    -Peter
    • by inKubus (199753)
      But really, preventing the POSSIBILITY *IS* important, you reckon? I mean, what if there IS a flesh eating bacteria, for whatever strange reason, on Mars and it came back to Earth with the explorers? I think maybe we'd regret it when the entire human population is eaten alive.

      I mean, when it comes to spending 100B on a Mars mission, why not throw in 20 bucks for a few cans of Lysol?
    • A chimp can't catch a cold from me. I can only play host to a limited number of bacteria that a lizard is susceptible to.

      But you can die of a disease contracted from a Parrot...
    • A chimp can't catch a cold from me.

      I wouldn't be so sure about that.

      The reason each years batch of new flus all originate in Asia is because of humans, pigs and ducks living in close proximity. Apparently viruses can be passed between these species...
  • This idea is actually laughable. Earth's bacteria and plagues have been evolving for billions of years just to kill Earth organisms. Anything that comes into our ecosystem will quickly be outcompeted and outclassed. It's like putting Bambi in a Terminator movie. There is absolutely nothing to worry about from Mars organisms.

    Sinclair Lewis goes into this topic in the biology classic 'Life of the Cell' Or a cell, I can't remember.
    • I disagree. The sole purpose of bacteria is not to "kill" as you suggest, but rather to survive. One bacteria might survive by consuming your flesh. Another might survive by consuming your white blood cells. A bacteria that is harmful to one organism may not be harmful to another. The reverse is also true. Now if a organism is introduced into this ecosystem and (i'll give this one to you) it doesn't kill humans...but rather attacks plant matter..would you agree that would have a detrimental effect on the environment? Let's just say it destroys part of the rain forest. And since we don't have a way of destroying this organism, it keeps going plants matters are consumed. Maybe, like you said, humans have evolved to be able to fight off bacteria..but it is only because we have encountered these bacterias over several thousands of years that we have built an immunity to it. If a new organism is introduced into the system, our bodies may not be able to fight it off.

      Now to look at it from a micro level. Research has shown that when you start dating someone new, you will usually get sick (ie cold, flu, etc) in the first couple of weeks/months. This is due to the fact that when you kiss, you transfer bacteria that the other person is immune to into your system which your body is not immune to. This is the same as introducing a new organism into the ecosystem.
      • You are right. And Earth organisms have been 'surviving' in Earth ecosystems for billions of years. Competition would kill off anything foreign in a matter of microseconds. The same would probably happen to native Earth life on Mars (if there is other life on Mars to compete with). Although we do have biomass going for us. If enough were transplanted into a Mars environment, there might be enough to get something started there.

        P.S. Plant organisms have highly evolved immune systems as well. They fight off infection and disease better than we do, for the most part.
    • Earth's bacteria and plagues have been evolving for billions of years just to kill Earth organisms.

      And the human immune system has been evolving for (at least) millions of years, just to kill foreign (read: non-host) pathogens. Yet we still get sick.

      Also, don't forget HIV, which due to a really weird quirk of genetics, has managed to infect and thrive in us by attacking the very immune system we depend on to survive.
    • The simple truth is, bacteria mutates faster then we do. It's taken us thousands of years to figure out how to stop certian strains of bacteria only to find other ones mutate and pose a problem.

      As another poster pointed out, bacteria do not mutate to 'kill', they mutate to survive (I have a hard time thinking of bacteria with an agenda), and if that means killing a host orginizsm that supports them, so be it (hey, who ever said bacteria are smart?)

      If there is basic life on mars, heck, I'd be a little worried if we did'nt take some precautions to make sure it does'nt get released in the general population.

      Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but in the beggining of the space program, did'nt NASA decontominate astronauts when they returned from orbit because they thought there might be a chance of bacteria?

    • Sinclair Lewis wrote "Babbit." Ricki Lewis edited "Life," which is, I think, the book you are taling about. Your statement shows a bit of a misconception.

      Virulence shows an organism poorly adapted to its host organism. When a disease is highly lethal and highly infectious, it is almost certainly new to the population. Earlier posters remembered that a European disease wiped out whole tribes of Indians after first contact. The disease was smallpox. Smallpox was a serious disease in Europe, but it was endemic. At a time when the "bad smell" theory of disease still had sway, smallpox killed only about 10% of the people it infected in Europe. Smallpox had been in Europe for many hundreds of years by that time.

      When smallpox was introduced into a human population that had never been exposed to it (native central Americans), it killed over 90% of the hosts it infected. We evolve too. The 10% who survived to have children probably had children who could survive smallpox. It's not that simple, but in principle that's what happens.

      It is NEW infections that are most likely to be devastating.

      A highly infectious disease that kills its host rapidly tends to disappear of its own accord. Hosts must be close enough to one another to infect another host before the organism kills the host. If it kills too quickly, the population dies out and there are no more hosts close enough to infect before the host dies.

      The odds that a microorganism from anothe biosphere would be infectious to humans is probably very small. But if it were, the chance that it might be devstating in its effect are probably fairly high.

      Anyways, my point is your statement "Earth's bacteria and plagues have been evolving for billions of years just to kill Earth organisms," is fundamentally wrong. Earth's bacteria have been evolving to survive longer and reproduce more. Disease that kill their hosts and do it quickly are NOT successful at this. Diseases that spread easily but merely inconvenience their hosts are enormously successful (the common cold springs to mind). So I do not think your reason is a sound one for being unconcerned about mars germs. There probably are many reasons to be unconcerned, but the notion that "they haven't learned how to kill us" isn't one of them.
      • How new do you think those infections are? They've been around infecting organisms for billions of years, probably infecting mammals for millions of years. A mutation that allows one to hop on over to another type of primate is no big deal. On the other hand, a mutation that would cross phylum (or whatever would have to be crossed to get back and forth between Mars organisms) is incredible to imagine.
      • Earth's bacteria have been evolving to survive longer and reproduce more. Disease that kill their hosts and do it quickly are NOT successful at this.

        Except those who have mastered the ability to produce spores.
        For example anthrax.
    • This idea is actually laughable. Earth's bacteria and plagues have been evolving for billions of years just to kill Earth organisms.

      Actually they evolved to survive attempts by the host to kill them. Actually killing it's host dosn't really do the invading orgainsm much good. Hence you end up with many diseases which do not kill the host.
    • That's a bogus argument.

      If something like a T-Rex were imported here from another planet, it would just as surely be top doggie here as it was back home.

      Why?

      Because it's fucking huge and has giant spiky teeth.

      Case closed.
  • by crimoid (27373) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @12:57AM (#3448654)
    This makes me wonder what, if anything, we left on the moon.... growing.... breeding... multiplying in the lunar dust...
  • by j09824 (572485) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @02:02AM (#3448822)
    There is no reason to go through the enormous expense of sending humans to mars for now. It would be much cheaper and safer to send more robotic probes. Robotic probes can also be sterilized much more easily, reducing both the risk of contaminating earth with mars bacteria and contaminating mars with earth bacteria.

    Once we know one way or another what kind of life exists on mars, then we can start thinking about sending humans. But that will invariably and irrevocably change mars.

  • Even let's for one second suppose that there are extraterrestrial bacterias on mars. (which seems to be rather unlikely), how well do you think they are equipped to survive on earth? Not much, they are specialized for a life on mars. How well do you think they understand to use terrestrial life as hosts? Not at all, where should thay have learned?

    It's the same on earth, take a lion from the steppe and put him on the south pole and look how well he survives there. Then take a pinguin from south pole and put him into the steppe where the lion was, how many days would you give this poor fellow?

    Okay I think there might even be some bacterias on mars, but they are terrestrial and plug in stasis on our probes and landers, and well we're used and well suited for this kind of. Extraterrestrial are very unlikely, and even if existend far more unlikely to be able to infect a human or any life on our planet.
    • take a lion from the steppe and put him on the south pole and look how well he survives there. Then take a pinguin from south pole and put him into the steppe where the lion was, how many days would you give this poor fellow?

      ... and take a some bacteria from the steppe, and put it in a pH12 vat of bauxite slurry. Sure, 99% of them die, but the 1% that survive flourish beyond the telling. This technique is used in mining operations in Australia (and, I presume, around the world) as a mechanism of cleaning up the waste products from the refining process.

      The simple fact is that bacteria are extremely good at adapting. They can and do adapt to environments where many experts have declared "Nothing can live here".

      Personally, I'd rather err on the side of caution. It only takes one of the little buggers to get back here with a knack for eating human flesh and it's adios muchacos. If it never happens, or is later proved to be impossible (i.e., we discover Mars _is_ just a rock) - great. We've wasted a little time and money, but little else. But remember - we only get once chance to bollocks up the planet. If it turns out that something can hitch a ride, I'd rather that there were protocols in place.

      Russ %-)
      • But remember you're refusing humans to enter earth again, without any visible proof, against a thing beyond chances, thats more than vust a liitle caution.

        I call this inhuman.
  • I think that the discovery of an alien life form on another planet, even so simple as bacteria, is far more interesting and important than being overly cautious about the slim possibility that bacteria that have a slim chance of existing might be able to somehow make it back to earth and, along with all of that, be able to infect or damage life on earth in some way.
    Most of even Earth's native bacteria are innocuous. This is just being paranoid.
  • The idea that a Martian microbe could be pathogenic to earthly life is basically dumb. NASA doesn't believe this for a second.

    So what's the bottom line of this red herring? Easy. NASA is now way too much of a fat, incompetent organization to dream of sending a man to Mars. They can barely get a simple Low Earth Orbit space station going for billions over an already bloated budget. Fearmongering is one (very low) way that they can produce classic FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about the very idea to let them off of the hook for not being able to produce such a mission.
  • by Get Behind the Mule (61986) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @05:22AM (#3449299)
    The submitter, apparently addressing the community of Slashdot readers, finishes with this question:

    What is the likelihood of bacterial life on Mars infecting the earth if we ever get around to visiting Mars in person?


    All right, Mr. Submitter, I'll answer your question: I haven't the foggiest idea. I've learned a little here or there about microorganisms and their possible existence outside of the Earth during my lifetime, and I regard myself as a relatively intelligent person, and tend to have strong opinions about most anything, including stuff I don't know much about. But the awful truth is that I'm not the least bit qualified to speculate on the likelihood of extraterrestrial infections on Earth. That's not an informative answer, I admit, but it's honest, and I daresay a great deal more honest than nearly all of the responses you've received so far.

    To be sure, there have been a few replies so far that seem to be thoughtful and well-informed, and perhaps they come from people who really are qualified to answer the question; but like I said, I'm not really qualified to make that evaluation. Almost all of the rest, it seems to me, are comments from people who may be relatively intelligent, may have read a thing or two about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and have all kinds of strong opinions about anything, and now they are speculating with wild abandon. Which is fun, but they will give you almost no reliable answers to your question, and may lead you completely astray.

    You probably wouldn't be having this problem if you had posted this question in a forum about "News for Molecular Biologists, Stuff That Matters to Astrophysicists". Why did you expect you expect to get any useful answers here?
  • suspicion (Score:3, Interesting)

    by loydcc (325726) on Thursday May 02, 2002 @07:03AM (#3449575) Journal
    Am I the only one who thinks maybe NASA knows something about the possibility of life on Mars that they're not shareing with the rest of us?

    Wasn't there a controversy over a test on Viking?

  • I think that all hardware and software used on such a mission should have open specs or be open source. That way, we can claim Mars as an Open Source Planet.

    We can set up our own Anti-DMCA stuff and make Windows illegal there. And Bill Gates, and Steve Ballmer and Hillary Rosen and Jack Valenti and Fritz Hollings and anyone else I don't like. ohhhh, what a sweet thought.

    And we can write our own drivers which would be far superior because there's less gravity.

    And everyone there would have a 19" LCD and get 500 FPS on Doom 4 at 1900x1600 at 64 bit colour with 64x anti aliasing and no latency at all. It would be paradise.
  • What is the likelihood of bacterial life on Mars infecting the earth if we ever get around to visiting Mars in person?"

    42...

    Nah, guess not.
  • Michael Crichton already wrote this story. Get a more original idea if you want to do science fiction, NRC.

As in certain cults it is possible to kill a process if you know its true name. -- Ken Thompson and Dennis M. Ritchie

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