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The Threat From Life on Mars 469

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the mars-need-women dept.
sweetshot97 writes "According to the UK site, Times Online; future trips to Mars that will have probes return with samples of the martian surface may contain deadly microbes of course, foreign to our world. The threat may be incurable bacterial infections we have no cure for. What's funny is that we may have even infected Mars with our own bacteria when we sent several probes there. "
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The Threat From Life on Mars

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  • by KontinMonet (737319) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:19AM (#11001020) Homepage Journal
    Stuff gets ejected off the surface of Mars and ends up on our planet anyway. All sorts of organic stuff can survive the journey too. This is a non-item if ever there was one.
  • More than unlikely (Score:2, Insightful)

    by RealBorg (549538) <thomasz@hostmas[ ].org ['ter' in gap]> on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:20AM (#11001031) Homepage
    We have to regretfully accept the fact that there will always be some people fear the progress we make and stand in it's way. Martian environment is not so much different from our's, it's just not a friendly. We may find microbes there that can resist extreme cold and heat, but there is no need for them to be resistent against antibiotic or immune systems for there are none.
  • No worries (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rixkix (205339) <rixkix@myrealbox ... minus herbivore> on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:21AM (#11001037)
    Life here has spent millions of years adapting and evolving defenses against such threats. Considering the massive amount of interactions taking place here, our microbes are likely far more dangerous to any life that may be there.
  • Martian meteors (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spudley (171066) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:22AM (#11001048) Homepage Journal
    When people start stirring up this idea, they need to be reminded of the fact that Earth and Mars have been trading meteorites for millions of years. There are plenty of Martian meteors already on this planet, and doubtless plenty of Terrestrial ones on Mars. Any 'infection' that was going to happen would already have taken place quite naturally.
  • by Lars T. (470328) <Lars.TraegerNO@SPAMgooglemail.com> on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:23AM (#11001053) Journal
    "The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one," he said.
  • Andromeda Strain (Score:5, Insightful)

    by passion (84900) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:25AM (#11001059)

    Didn't they make a movie [imdb.com] about this type of thing back in '71?

  • Incurable? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hyfe (641811) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:25AM (#11001060)
    There's plenty of incurable diseases on earth today, and bacteria transfer over from the strangest places. Even with the rich life Earth has, we still haven't seen any all-conquering all-devouring super-micro-organism-to-destroy-anything here yet. Why would they exist on Mars?
  • by pdabbadabba (720526) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:27AM (#11001070) Homepage

    Unless these pathogens have evolved from something found on Earth (or vice versa...creepy), it's probably pretty unlikely that they will be bacteria (or viri, for that matter) per se. I think it would be fair to assume that any martian pathogen would be a totally new beast.

    That said, however, given that there are no macro-scale living things on Mars to infect, its pretty unlikely that it would have any mechanisms in place to handle our immune defenses. While this cuts both ways (our immune defenses would also be woefully ill-prepared), our immune system is good enough to have generalized responses queued up to handle just about anything (think about inflamation, etc). This is not to mention that the pathogen is unlikely to have any idea (if you'll excuse the anthropomorphism) how to infect the human body in the first place (how to cross from the lungs to the blood stream, how to infiltrate mucous membranes, etc).

    I think we'll probably have to look for the apocalypse somewhere other than in the form of a martian plague.

  • Odds (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gmuslera (3436) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:30AM (#11001080) Homepage Journal
    Is long far more probable than we got infected by a mushroom/squid/worm/elephant specific disease, that have at least a similar biochemistry and even very similar ADN, than getting infected by an alien disease, be from Mars, Titan or Beta Eridani.
  • by amigoro (761348) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:34AM (#11001091) Homepage Journal
    On August 7, 1996, NASA announced a startling discovery - by examining a meteorite that originated on Mars, they found what they believe is evidence for a primitive form of life that may have existed on Mars 3.6 billion years ago. More work needs to be done to confirm this preliminary result, and many scientists remain unconvinced by the present evidence. But if this preliminary result is confirmed, if the structures inside the meteorite turn out to be fossil evidence for cellular organisms, then some important steps can be taken.

    First, we would need to launch a mission to Mars, manned or unmanned, to secure and return to earth core samples that might provide evidence for or against DNA as the organizing scheme for the Mars life form. Having accomplished the return of a biological sample and determined the presence or absence of DNA, we are then faced with a quandary.

    Read the full Article [arachnoid.com]

    If this is true, we shouldn't worry too much.

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  • by Thingummywut (717963) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:39AM (#11001113)
    But don't these items normally burn up in our atmosphere instead of being protected in space shuttle containers?
  • by physicsphairy (720718) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:45AM (#11001135) Homepage
    What's funny is that we may have even infected Mars with our own bacteria when we sent several probes there.

    It would be great news if there was life capable of surviving both Martian and earth climates, because that would mean we could terriform Mars.

    As far as bacteria from Mars that might infect earth, let me put it this way: what about bacteria from the deep sea being brought up by submarines? What about bacteria from deep in the earth's crust being being unearthed by drilling operations? What about all of these micro organism that inhabit exotic environments on our own planet that we risk releasing into our habitat all the time? What happens to them?

    Tersely put: they die.

    It's evolution, my friends. Organisms have specialized to compete in their own biological niches and developed the best tools available to do so, at the cost of performing well in alternative environments. Any organism introduced from such a foreign environment as I've mentioned, even if it could survive our human environment, it would be horrifically outcompeted by the existing organisms in our ecosystem and die handily.

    Notions of a superplague from another planet wiping out life on earth are strictly fantasy stories which ignore real evolutionary fact.

  • How funny? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by smithypoo (827172) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:57AM (#11001174)
    What's funny is that we may have even infected Mars with our own bacteria when we sent several probes there.

    How funny? +5 Funny? +5 Stupid more like...
  • by guybarr (447727) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:01AM (#11001186)

    an icon with Uri-Geller's face will do fine.
  • by Dinosaur Neil (86204) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:03AM (#11001196)

    ...it would most likely thrive in out environment.

    Maybe, maybe not. Terrestrial microbial life-forms have had millenia of evolution and competition to fill every available niche in their available environment; how will Martian microbes compete, let alone thrive? How many extremophiles have been dredged up from their remote terrestrial locations and then caused terrible plagues?

    Caution is appropriate here, but the article seems to be hinting at a "let's just stay home and lock the door and hope no one bothers us" attitude that would have kept mankind safely ensconced in the Olduvai Gorge.

  • Re:No worries (Score:2, Insightful)

    by rixkix (205339) <rixkix@myrealbox ... minus herbivore> on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:08AM (#11001211)
    True enough, but we almost definitely have, by several orders of magnitude, a much larger variety of organisms interacting with each other. The battle between microbe and host has been fought for a long time here and anything from Mars would be fighting us on OUR turf. We've built up excellent general defenses against microorganisms over the years.
  • Extremely Unlikely (Score:2, Insightful)

    by curtvdh (738461) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:14AM (#11001233)

    Organic life and bacteria/virii have been involved in a never-ending arms race for millions, if not billions of years. They come up with a new vector for infection, larger organics evolve a way to counter that infection and so on, ad infinitum...

    The chances of an alien retrovirus having the necessary enymes to inject a DNA strand into a human cell are pretty close to zero. The chances of any bacteria being able to survive a highly evolved immune system are also pretty close to zero. I would call this a non-issue.

  • by ColGraff (454761) <maron1&mindspring,com> on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:15AM (#11001243) Homepage Journal
    Why in the world would Martian microorganisms evolve with the ability to infect Terrestrial organisms? What's the "selection pressure" for that? What advantage is conferred by the ability to infect organisms that 99.9 *ad infinitum* Martian organisms will never, ever encounter? How would such a selection pressure manifest itself?

    Without serious, plausible answers to these questions, this concern really strikes me as more appropriate to a b-movie than serious space exploration. Now, I *like* b-movies. But still.
  • by warrax_666 (144623) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:27AM (#11001293)
    For reference on how dangerous that can be, please research the primary reason that the native Aztecs and Incans perished. Hint: It wasn't at the tip of a Spanish spear.

    Diseases had already adapted to infect humans when they were introduced to the Americas. Very different from the scenario the article is talking about.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:40AM (#11001337)
    Because the humans who got close to the Martians all died terrible deaths by raygun or poison gas. Bacteria is slow in comparison ;P
  • by mothlos (832302) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:48AM (#11001372)
    And then what are the odds that microbes from Mars would be able to survive in a human environment? And if it did live in a human environment, would it be able to spread at all considering it has had no previous experience trying to spread in any organism that exists today?

    This is rediculous news akin to people being afraid of meteors for possibly containing alien fungus that will eat their brains.
  • by xigxag (167441) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @11:55AM (#11001648)
    The examples that you mention of species which thrive in a new environment are species which have already evolved (there's that word again) to survive and compete in very similar environments. Japanese beetles natively exist in temperate climates which are not terribly different from Michigan's except for the unfortunate lack of predators. Notice that Japanese beetles haven't proven a threat to the Antarctic or the Sahara. And it's fair to conclude they would not do too well on Mars, despite having zero natural predators there. And D. radiodurans, for all its varied resistances and defenses, for all of its millions of years headstart with respect to a hypothetical Martian superbug, still doesn't thrive in the environment that matters most to us -- within our own bodies.

    On Earth, bacteria and molds eat just about anything that contains an energy source and has not evolved a way to fight off an attack. What leads you to think that a Martian bug's got some extra mojo that isn't already here in one of our Earth-optimized species?

    There's also the fact which many others have already pointed out. If Mars is populated by microbes, they've probably been here already, via meteorites. So to sum up, I think the threat, if any, is minimal.
  • by John Courtland (585609) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @12:05PM (#11001693)
    Next time you have a bacterial infection, go sneeze on your pet. It won't get sick. See the point? Just because it's bacteria (which we have tons of in our intestines anyway), doesn't mean it's assuredly toxic to our specific biology.
  • by Couldn'tCareLess (818316) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @12:16PM (#11001745)
    As I alluded to in the post above, "hospitable" is an entirely subjective term. I find bracing autumn days to be most pleasant; the average Iguana will likely have the opposite opinion.
  • by farble1670 (803356) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @12:24PM (#11001779)
    Until we actually find a single trace of life there this is all due to an overintake of Hollywood crap.

    it strikes me that this is one of those things that it is better to be safe than sorry about. the very fact that we have zero experience with non-terran life forms seems a pretty good reason to take precautions against them.
  • Re:Reality Check (Score:2, Insightful)

    by QuantumInterference (836894) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @12:27PM (#11001792)
    Go back to watching your Hollywood movies and leave us in peace. If you think it is wiser to spend billions on Hollywood junk (yes, most of it IS junk) than on real science then have the UN start paying Hollywood's fees after we withdraw. And move Hollywood and the UN to Paris. If you are an American, I hear there is a group helping folks like you pay for a bus ticket to Montreal. Then, you can go up there and live off of American third world welfare, American defenses, pay all of your taxes into a system that allows you to wait in line for months for second rate emergency medical care, AND, claim to have invented all kinds of cool things without spending any Canadian dough on real research.
  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @12:40PM (#11001879) Homepage Journal
    It does cause other protiens to fold over when it comes into contact with them, no?
    So does a solution of ammonia (it's used in hair curling lotions). Is that alive? So does a frying pan, for that matter.
  • by my sig is bigger tha (682562) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @12:47PM (#11001917)
    your sig begs the response - Atheists don't fly planes into buildings in the name of God. They do it in the name of Nietsche...
  • Re:No worries (Score:3, Insightful)

    by drooling-dog (189103) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @01:25PM (#11002128)
    Another reason not to worry about it is that random microbes aren't infectious to humans "by default"; that ability is an adaptation just like our defenses against it are. With no humans running around on Mars, there has been no opportunity (or possibility) for pathogenic capabilities to evolve.
  • Re:MY GOD! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by iggymanz (596061) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @01:30PM (#11002164)
    Linux (and most other Unix) zealots can't handle that kind of humor because their favorite kernel really doesn't do "fairness" properly: the kernel of any quality OS would limit the load on the machine that one login can create.
  • by quarkscat (697644) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @02:12PM (#11002365)
    Sure.
    And NASA, at the time, thought that it was
    doing the "right" thing about contamination.
    The only problem is, is that autoclaving and
    UV irradiation DOES NOT KILL all microbal life.
    It only makes the "survivors" the very toughest
    of the bunch. Microbiologists have discovered
    microbes living more than a mile underground
    that eat rock! And oceanographers have found
    microbes thriving in the hot vents of the ocean
    floor, where their thermometers have literally
    melted. Re-examination of both the sterilization
    process and the materials used, NASA has reached
    the conclusion that 100% sterility (no microbal
    life) on stars-bound craft was not possible.
    That said, there is no reason to believe that
    some "cross-pollination" between Earth and Mars
    has not been going on since the beginning of
    time. Any attempt that NASA or ESA (or PRC)
    makes to return "samples" to Earth will only
    accelerate that process.
    The "war of the worlds" is going on right now,
    but on Mars, and at the microbal level, ever
    since we landed craft there. Like the line from
    the "Alien" movie series stated ... "they were
    with us the entire way".
    The push to put men on Mars will far outweigh
    the ability to detect and preserve whatever
    life already existed on Mars, anyway. And for
    true "terraforming" to commence there, someone
    is going to have to make the decision to massively
    and deliberately contaminate Mars with microbes.

  • by deglr6328 (150198) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @02:14PM (#11002380)
    It's worth noting that it is suspected the Soviets did not bother AT ALL to sterilize thier Mars probes [wikipedia.org]. Also, Zond 2 which was intended to only flyby Mars actually crashed, it was certainly not sterilized.
  • by wibs (696528) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @03:19PM (#11002789)
    Funny, but for every time someone says something like that and it really is their last words, there are a billion times nothing happens at all.

    Of course, a life where nothing ever happens might be worse than death.
  • Re:No worries (Score:3, Insightful)

    by drooling-dog (189103) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @03:24PM (#11002817)
    But something that by chance can reproduce in humans unchecked cannot be ruled out with enough certainty to expose us to Mars dust.

    Yes, it can. There is simply no possibility that human virulence could have evolved there. Virulence is a complex process, and it's simply not going to happen "by chance" in the absence of a host. I'd worry far more about new bugs from antarctic ice cores (and I'm not worried about those either).

    It would be wiser to send automated electron microscopes to Mars if we want to search for life there, not bring Mars stuff to Earth.

    Deal: For one-tenth the cost of that, I will personally volunteer to rub Mars dust all over my body and stay in quarantine for a month (or two, if that makes you feel better)...

  • by Brian_Confucius (824664) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @05:23PM (#11003549)
    While I can't stand this AC, it should be noted that this is the first time he has made a valid point. Whether it was accidently or on purpose, I don't know.
  • by aminorex (141494) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @06:25PM (#11003847) Homepage Journal
    Theres no telling what a Martian microbe would do in a Terrestrial environment, and there's no reasonable basis for making predictions. It might not even be an organism per se, but rather silicon-based life. The only categorical solution is not to bring anything back until the place has been thoroughly explored, in detail. It's a one-way trip, boys.

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