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Science

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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  • Odds Are Against It (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kaellinn18 (707759) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:17AM (#11001004) Homepage Journal
    Odds are that any lifeform that is adapted to live on Mars will pretty much die immediately on earth, unless contained in an area that has a Mars-like climate. I wouldn't be too worried.
  • by The Spanish Ninja (726892) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:21AM (#11001033)
    In Orson Wells' War Of the Worlds, why do the Martian invaders die of our everyday diseases, but humans don't die of theirs?
  • by Jakosa (667951) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:37AM (#11001105)
    True! The reason we are prone to be infected and killed by enumerable organism on earth is that we share the evolution with them. We are competitors in the same system. Unless there is some higher lifeforms on mars we are not in emidiate danger (I think).

    On the other hand will a contamination with earthly germ on mars be a major drawback for science.
  • by handy_vandal (606174) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:38AM (#11001108) Homepage Journal
    What's funny is that we may have even infected Mars with our own bacteria when we sent several probes there.

    Not so funny.

    Alien microbes are less dangerous (to us) than our own terran microbes.

    Truly alien microbes may or may not thrive in our bodies.

    Earth microbes, on the other hand, already know how to live in our bodies. A mutant earh microbe can readily mutute into virulent new forms.

    This was the gist of The Andromeda Strain [google.com].

    -kgj
  • by goombah99 (560566) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:43AM (#11001127)
    The first Mars landers were autoclaved to prevent contamination from mars. This made for some rather remarkable compromises in the lander design in order for it to survive baking.

    For example, because there were no heat resistant, space worthy (radiation resistant) memories back then an advance form of magnetic core memory memory was used. So this thing had VERY little memory. All data had to be stored on board for later transmission. The storage was done on magnetic tape. But of course the "modern" plastic magnetic tape could not be autoclaved. So they went back to the original magnetic tape: a steel band.

    The atmosphere on mars has orders of magnitude lower pressure than ours. SO one cannot use a conventional pressure gauge. And an ultra sensitive baritron (capicitively measured diaphram gauge) would never have survived baking. (modern ones are become more robust). So insted they implemented a new kind of pressure guage never used before. It consisted of three temrerature sensors on stalks at right angle and some heat sources on stalks. By measuring the time history of the temperature reading they were able to use a mathematical heat transport model to back out the wind direction, velocity and pressure.

    This device turned out to be amazingly robust and kept its calibration over years of service. No lander since then can claim the accuracy of this original weather station.

    Later probes were not as thourgouly baked in part because they were so much more complicated their components could not withstand it.

    As for bacteria living on mars. There are already earthly bacteria that could survive. For example take Radio-durans whose preferred environment is the high radiation environemnt underneath the hanford waste tanks. It can withsand having its DNA sliced in to tiny bits and still recover. It evolved on earth to live in extreme oxidizing conditions, turned out radiation damage, complete desication, and other stresses were a freebie. Things like antrhax spores can live decades, maybe much more, in a non-vegitative form.

  • by pdabbadabba (720526) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @09:54AM (#11001159) Homepage

    I overlooked the possibility that the bug might simply consume a mineral for fuel. A martian germ that consumes various organic molecules found in human tissue could be a big problem. I'm not so sure that our immune system would be competent to handle a bug that simply broke down our molecules to feast on the carbon rings within and that reproduced on its own (without help from the host). Out skin may also not be any defense if it was edible itself.

    Given, however, that we would not play the normal role of "host" in this relationship, but simply the role of food, would it really be proper to think of them as pathogens? They would seem more like either a nasty microscopic predator, or simply a caustic chemical (depending on how they work).

  • Re:Martian meteors (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Council (514577) <rmunroe@UUUgmail.com minus threevowels> on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:10AM (#11001221) Homepage
    If infection was going to take place, it already would have?

    Then how come we're not finding our bacteria on mars?

    Either (a) no bacteria here can possibly live or evolve to live on Mars and probably vice versa, or (b) your premise is false and the whole 'meteorite' process, with its extreme heat and cold and no oxygen, does a pretty good job of killing interesting bacteria (that is, any infection that was going to happen has NOT necessarially happened).

    if (a) we're safe -- and people seem to think it unlikely -- but if (b) then maybe our collection processes are worth being careful about.

    All that said, I doubt martian bacteria will be a danger to us. germs tend to evolve to work with their hosts but not do too much damage; things like ebola are the exception, not the norm. I don't expect martian bacteria to have much of an interest in destroying human cells. But that's just a guess. I could be wrong.
  • Re:Martian meteors (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Gudlyf (544445) <`moc.ketsilaer' `ta' `fyldug'> on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:26AM (#11001287) Homepage Journal
    Going out on a limb here, but what about organisms that travel one way, then come back again (i.e., bacteria from Earth goes to Mars, mutates from the differing radiation levels/climate/etc., then that bacteria is brought back to Earth on a returning ship)?
  • by earthforce_1 (454968) <earthforce_1.yahoo@com> on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:35AM (#11001323) Journal
    One of the most amazing discoveries from apollo 12 was that when they removed the camera from the surveyor robotic misson that landed a two years earlier, and returned it to earth for analysis , they found human throat bacteria on it, even though it was returned in a sealed, sterile container.

    http://www.lpi.usra.edu/expmoon/Apollo12/A12_Exp er iments_III.html

    One of the astronauts on the mission later remarked that he considered it the most incredible discovery of the entire Apollo program.
  • by Fractal Dice (696349) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:42AM (#11001344) Journal

    According to the 1898 H.G. Wells original story (of which the infamous radio play was just a dramatization, not the original source material), the Martians were eating earth foodstuffs and water and it was basically food poisoning that did them in.

    To wit:

    But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow.

    And from the epilog:

    At any rate, in all the bodies of the Martians that were examined after the war, no bacteria except those already known as terrestrial species were found.

    ( I would like to thank The Literature Network [online-literature.com] and google for their assistance in the preparation of this post. No martians were harmed in the research. )

    ( oh, and I wouldn't lose much sleep over Martian bugs - there are plenty of diseases in strange corners of our own world against which we have no defenses - I's rate this whole article "-1 : FUD" )

  • by artson (728234) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:44AM (#11001356) Homepage Journal
    "*If* there were anything living on Mars in the first place, it would die long before we ever knew it got here."
    That's a rather breathtaking generalization, even for Slashdot.

    We're talking about a whole planet here with nearly as varied conditions for life as on Terra. Here is a mid-level overview of Mars Seasons, Weather, Exploration, Life [uchicago.edu]. A cursory look at Atmospheric Temperature, Seasons [washington.edu] and Pressures [washington.edu], reveals that Mars is remarkably similar to our own planet. If recent research has proved anything about life, it seems to be that given any kind of opportunity at all, life will flourish.

    There is a small possibility that some of Mars' mantle may already have splashed onto our own planet [lasam.ca]. Can you say with any certainty that Martian microbes aren't already here?
  • by efatapo (567889) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:48AM (#11001367) Homepage
    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.

    Tersely put, you're not as bright as you think you are. Many foreignly introduced species do quite well in new environment for the mere fact that they have no natural predators. Here in Michigan someone decided it would be a good idea to introduce japanese beetles to kill an insect that was destroying crops. Well...ok, it worked a little too well. Now our fall season is marked by a ridiculous number of ladies bugs getting in any crack or crevice you can imagine. They're everywhere. Now this is just an annoyance, but there have been similar non-native species introduced that destroy other species.

    Also, as previously mentioned, species like Deinococcus radiodurans thrives in harsh conditions but also squeaks along under normal life conditions. There are many species whose spores can survive in non-optimal conditions and only start to grow when they are presented with those conditions that are conducive for life.

    This is more of a threat than many people are playing it off as. Additionally, our sending ships there is a threat to any possible native species in Mars. Oh, and this also had nothing to do with evolution. I don't know why you threw that in there except as a buzz word.

    ~A biochemist
  • Article is a troll (Score:3, Interesting)

    by britneys 9th husband (741556) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @12:35PM (#11001843) Homepage Journal
    Back in July, I posted a troll comment [slashdot.org] that used exactly the same reasoning as this article. It was an article about bacteria in Antarctica that had been isolated for thousands of years. My comment was:

    We humans aren't going to have any immunity to these microbes that have been isolated for 500000 years. I hope whoever's studying these lakes takes appropriate precautions against both accidental release and theft by terrorist organizations.

    It got 17 direct and 78 indirect replies, and made the July issue of Trollback magazine. Sometimes I wonder if the reason Slashdot has so many trolls is because the editors are trolls themselves.
  • by hords (619030) on Sunday December 05, 2004 @02:40PM (#11002525)
    Or perhaps you shouldn't...

    "The common influenza virus can indeed go back and forth between people and their pet ferrets. Dr. J.B. Bruederle, former president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association and a vet with a special interest in ferrets, said it's relatively common for owners to transmit the flu to their ferrets." Link [ip2m.com]
  • Not likely... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 05, 2004 @10:26PM (#11005129)
    As a biologist by trade... the ods of there being potentially harmful bacteria on Mars are unlikely -- such an event lies outside our understanding of pathology.

    Basically, the vast majority of biologically active entities are not effectively pathogenic to humans (be they prions, catalytic RNAs, viruses, or microorganisms). The few that are have evolved their pathogenicity from being being pathogenic in another high-level organism. Highly pathogenic entities have developed their pathogenicity explicitly by developing in the environment of their human population host.

    Since it's reasonable to assume that there have not been humans on Mars for a very long time (I think most people would accept "never"), there hasn't been a population of human hosts to develop pathogenicity in. Whatever organisms do exist only have selection pressure to fit their respective niches in their environment.

    A more pertinent question: are there chemical contaminants that may be harmful? Or, perhaps, if there are biologics -- and presuming that they evolved in a fashion as to be functional in the terrestrial environment -- they are most likely to affect other microorganisms, but what and how?

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