Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
Space Science

Space Lichens 250

moon_monkey writes "According to a report lichens - a composite of algae and fungi - can survive in space for up to two weeks. An experiment carried out by the European Space Agency saw two species of lichen carried into orbit and then exposed to the vacuum of space for nearly 15 days. These are the most complex form of life now known to have survived prolonged exposure to space. The experiment adds weight to the theory of panspermia - that life could somehow be transported between planets."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Space Lichens

Comments Filter:
  • If they need more test subjects, my shower walls have plenty of fungus to donate.
  • panspermia (Score:5, Funny)

    by krgallagher ( 743575 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:04PM (#14000203) Homepage
    I thought panspermia came from flute playing goats.
    • Eww. (Score:3, Funny)

      by pavon ( 30274 )
      I don't want to know what kind of flute that goat-man is playing.
    • Electron microscopic image of the lichen [esa.int] after the flight.

    • Re:panspermia (Score:3, Insightful)

      I really can't believe that anyone takes panspermia seriously. They are saying it's too hard to believe that life originated here, so let's postulate that there's a more hospital place life could have originated. And that life somehow got ejected from its homeworld without being damaged. Then it traveled through empty, 2.3 kelvin or so space for millions, probably billions of years. It somehow stayed alive, or at least intact enough for its genetic material to survive. Then it entered the earth's atmos
      • There are really three different cases for PanSpermia - Interplanetary, Interstellar Accidental, and Friendly Space Aliens. The Scientific American article and the Space Lichens experiment are exploring the possibility that carbon-based lifeforms or at least useful pre-life chemicals could have been transported between planets, at least from Mars to Earth, and while that possibility would be necessary for Interstellar Panspermia to work, it's not sufficient - surviving on a trip from Mars to Earth is much
  • by plover ( 150551 ) *
    I think they already did this experiment under another name: MIR. My understanding is the primary reason they brought MIR down rather than rehabilitate it was the presence of mold that they could not kill using means that weren't also toxic to the cosmonauts.

    They didn't describe the details of the flight. Was this a mission to the ISS? If so, I wonder how much risk they took by "opening" the box in the presence of the station? Could they have infected it with lichens, or more likely with "tramp mold"

    • by Gabe Garza ( 535203 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:36PM (#14000575)
      Not the same thing. The mold you're talking about in MIR would have been in the crew compartment, which, unless there's something I don't know about Russians, wouldn't have been a vacuum. The lichens discussed in the article were in a sealed container that, once the craft was in space, was opened. So they were completely exposed to the vacuum of space.
    • AFAIK, the MIR mold was only growing inside the space station. In other words it had a nice atmospherically controlled environment practically identical to the environment that it evolved in. The only oddity that it had to deal with was lack of gravity.

      This is much different as the lichen had to survive the vacuum of space, including direct solar radiation and dramatic temperature variations that come with it.
      • I'm assuming the MIR astronauts could have suited up and opened the doors to let some "fresh vacuum in" (yes, it's a joke), much the same way we earthbound people open the windows if the dog poops on the carpet. But I'm betting that wouldn't have worked.

        The techniques that we'd normally use to sterilize mold on earth would include flame and chemicals. Fire in a spacecraft is generally a really bad idea. It would have been especially bad considering some of the mold was growing on electrical wire insula

    • The mold in MIR was inside the station where there was air and moisture. Why would it be the least bit surprising that mold could grow where humans can live? This experiment was carried out outside the spacecraft wher there is neither air nor moisture.

      And no, the mold problem was not why they brought down MIR.
    • My understanding is the primary reason they brought MIR down rather than rehabilitate it was the presence of mold that they could not kill using means that weren't also toxic to the cosmonauts.

      Hate to break it to you, but MY understanding is that exposure to space is also toxic to astronauts.
    • With MIR the fungus/mold was on the inside of the spacecraft. It traveled up with the microbe filled meatbags that the MIR was designed to provide a habitat for.

      As for treating the mold/mildew/fungus, we have the same problems even on Earth. The chemical vulnerabilities that the mold cell has are similar to those of human cells. Because of this it is difficult to treat any kind of fungus infection in humans without hurting the human as well.

      For instance, most anti-fungal treatments are so toxic that they
  • They needed to go into space to test a vacuum?

    Maybe they wanted to test radiation, or is this just a high-profile confirmation of something we already knew?
    • by RoffleTheWaffle ( 916980 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:14PM (#14000331) Journal
      They likely brought it into space in order to determine whether or not it could survive not just in a vaccuum, but also under these conditions, all at the same time:

      * Vaccuum. (Of course.)
      * Assorted forms of radiation.
      * Zero gravity.
      * Extremes of temperature.

      Those conditions tend not to support life from Earth, and so to see that lichen can indeed survive in space, if only for a short time, is astounding. Not only does this add weight to the panspermia theory, but it also could stand to change our take on the 'qualifications' for a habitable environment completely, raising questions such as, "Could it be possible for more complex organisms to actually thrive in space?"

      I for one welcome our moldy overlords.
      • panspermia theory, but it also could stand to change our take on the 'qualifications' for a habitable environment completely, raising questions such as, "Could it be possible for more complex organisms to actually thrive in space?"

        Thank you! This is the question people seem to be skirting. Life as "we know it" is really just "as we know it." Certain people assume that water is essential for life. That life is carbon based. These are only linchpins of life on EARTH.

        So the "panspermia" theory is nic

        • by RoffleTheWaffle ( 916980 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @04:03PM (#14000964) Journal
          Substances like water, carbon, and oxygen are neat because they seem to be the most condusive to forming complex substances that make up the organic components of the bodies of living things. It's silly to think that there aren't living things that can exist without water, though. Or carbon. Or oxygen.

          Theories about the possible environments wherein living things could exist are endless. Looking at the extremophilic algae and tube worms - That was the name you were looking for, I believe - here on Earth, we could see similar creatures living in the hot, highly acidic, CO2 rich environments of Venus. Lichens and other organisms tailored to exist only on the essentials, on the other hand, could thrive - and may actually exist - on Mars. (And if Mars was once like Earth, that theory certainly takes off, doesn't it?) Of course, those schools of thought only support organisms akin to the ones that exist here on Earth.

          Meanwhile, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn provide a plethora of environments known to support life on Earth in some cases, but there are also theories that organisms could exist in the extreme cold of some of these celestial bodies by catalyzing acetylene and other volatile substances at extremely slow rates. If that theory were to pan out, then the idea of 'ice creatures from outer space' might not be too far off - and possibly a springboard for dozens of cheesy new sci-fi movies. (It'd certainly beat Spielburg's take on 'War of the Worlds'.)

          While we're discussing theoretical models for living things unlike those that exist here on Earth, let's take a look at what we're made of - that all-important element carbon, I'm no chemistry expert, but doesn't boron nitride behave in a remarkably similar fashion to carbon? What about the possibility of a boron-based group of organisms? Or maybe plants and animals composed of different substances entirely? When one begins to consider the possibilities, it becomes immediately evident that they are indeed virtually endless.

          The void of space may indeed host living things. Other worlds thought to be uninhabitable may also support life as well. I agree that it'd be pretty silly to disregard that possibility until we can conclusively prove that life simply can't thrive in these environments. Heck, maybe there's some kind of lichen out in some nebula somewhere, feeding off of plasma... Who knows.
      • - Reentry heat (need to be inside a big rock or something)

        - Boredom. Lichens are fairly uncontemplative creatures, however.
        • > - Reentry heat (need to be inside a big rock or something)
          > - Boredom. Lichens are fairly uncontemplative creatures, however.

          Bored lichens. On fire.

          Dude, the Star Wars Galaxies thread is this way [slashdot.org], bud!

  • Cause they're all made of algae and fungi!!! It's the 'greys' that are a myth!
  • Panspermia (Score:5, Funny)

    by charlesbakerharris ( 623282 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:05PM (#14000224)
    Sounds like a neat theory, but it'd have to be an absolutely killer climax to have it hit escape velocity. I can't usually get more than 7-8 feet of distance even on a pent-up, high-pressure day.
    • by theJML ( 911853 )
      Yeah, and even if they were able to hit escape veolcity, I wonder if they tried an atmospheric re-entry test.

      Tosty mold, coming right up!
  • Adds weight? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MosesJones ( 55544 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:06PM (#14000237) Homepage

    But not much, 2 weeks doesn't even get you to Mars... I thought most of the theories of life coming from other planets were based around elements being embedded inside rocks etc rather than being directly exposed to space.

    But it is nice to see Europe continuing to treat Space as a learning experience rather than a PR stunt.
  • Obligatory (Score:4, Funny)

    by Digitus1337 ( 671442 ) <lk_digitus@@@hotmail...com> on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:06PM (#14000241) Homepage
    I for one, welcome out new space-faring algae lichens. As a D&D player I've seen what regular lich can do, but I was unaware of their resistances to space. I truely am scared and confused.
  • by swanriversean ( 928620 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:08PM (#14000262)
    "Lichens have a tough mineral coating that could shield them from UV rays. They are also made from individual organisms layered on top of one another, so outer layers may provide protection for underlying cells. The organisms have already been shown to be capable of withstand high levels of UV radiation on Earth."

    This is interesting, I wonder how well they the outer layers could protect things below? Would it be possible to use some lichen in a pinch to make a repair to part of a ship? Could this be the poor mans self-replicating nano robot patch kit?

    I have no idea about these things, just an interesting prospect, I think.
  • by The Metahacker ( 3507 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:08PM (#14000264)
    "Up to two weeks?"

    No, "At *least* two weeks". They were exposed for 15 days and were unchanged.

    Lichen and spores are sure durable; I wouldn't be surprised if they could survive basically indefinitely in a cold vacuum.
  • ...how much better can this stuff fare in the thin atmosphere of Mars? Time to start terraforming!
  • by sssmashy ( 612587 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:09PM (#14000285)
    Even if a lichen or lower life form could survive for a time in the vacuum of space (with some form of protection from radiation and in hibernation mode), could it really survive the intense heat from the friction of earth's atmosphere? I've heard of extremophiles, but...
    • by plover ( 150551 ) * on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:14PM (#14000336) Homepage Journal
      TFA says the layers are mineral based, and if there are enough layers I suppose the outer ones could ablate on reentry providing protection to the layers beneath. It's possible it would provide enough protection for some spores on the bottom most layers to survive.

      What I've never understood about that theory, though, is how the life forms got off their home planet and onto an interstellar-bound rock.

      • What I've never understood about that theory, though, is how the life forms got off their home planet and onto an interstellar-bound rock.

        Asteroid strikes. They can 'splash' up a lot of material, which can easily reach escape velocity.
      • What I've never understood about that theory, though, is how the life forms got off their home planet and onto an interstellar-bound rock.

        Via ejecta, large pieces of debris that are thrown off the planet from meteor strikes. That's the significance of the Mars rocks found in the Antarctic tundra [theregister.co.uk].

        If you've got life floating around in your atmosphere, it might not even require ejecta but instead just near collisions with porous asteroids passing through the upper atmosphere.

      • by temojen ( 678985 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:32PM (#14000532) Journal
        Rockets maybe... What better way to make absolutely clear to any intelligent life on another planet that there is life where you are from than hucking some of it at them?
      • My issue is this: Ok, rock leaves planet with life. Via meteor ejecta or whatever. There are a whole heck of a lot of trajectories. How does it ever hit another planet? I mean, the planets in the galaxy must be like a millionth of a billionth of a percent of the volume. And gravity would be working against the meteor with life on it. Even a near miss is useless (or even worse, would destroy some of the life on the meteor, if not the actual meteor).

        Essentially, it seems like being spun around blindf
        • There's this force called "Gravity"; objects with a large and/or dense mass displace the space around them, creating an attractive force that drawns in surrounding objects - albeit at a slow speed. Over many eons, a sufficient gravitational force could attract many interstellar and intergallactic visitors of various shapes and sizes.
          • See, but there are these things called stars, black holes, nebulae, etc. Big, massive, lots of gravity, but not suitable for life. Life would need to land on a solid planet, and the gravity effects of a planet are dwarfed by the nearby star(s). So my point stands. Very low odds of hitting a planet.
        • by Hlewagastir ( 857624 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @05:28PM (#14001893)
          I would hazard to guess the odds of ejecta striking another planet at much worse than 1:1,000,000. Be that as it may, if I were given a gun that could shoot 1 billion bullets in the stadium, and I fired those bullets randomly while blindfolded, I would be very surprised Not to have hit the target a few decades later when I expended all of my bullets. Just the same with the example of a planet ejecting material over the millenia. It is highly unlikely for any one rock to hit anything, however the odds of one out of an astronomical number of rocks to hit another planet becomes significantly more plausible.
      • Didn't you see the amount of rock shooting off into space after the Death Star blew up Alderaan? Let's not forget all of the test shots they would have done before that.

        Also, we can't forget that it could have been on pieces of the ringworld from Halo.
    • I was watching "Naked Science" the other night and one of the scientists mentioned that asteroids only spend a very short time in the atmosphere before hitting the ground and as a result only the outside few mm gets very hot.
  • by Jeld ( 17209 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:10PM (#14000292) Homepage
    Question: How long can a human stay in space without a space suit?
    Answer: Almost indefinitely <evil grin>
  • by DanTheLewis ( 742271 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:10PM (#14000294) Homepage Journal
    This space lichen corpse tastes terrible! You finish eating the space lichen corpse.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:10PM (#14000296)
    From answers.com citing the American Heritage Dictionary,
    the etymology of panspermia [answers.com]:
    Greek panspermia;, mixture of all seeds : pan-, pan- + sperma, seed
    ... no hint of interplanetary relations by the root words.
    • Indeed, the Greek adjectives allos or allotrios ("another" and "alien; foreign" respectively) may serve better in this place. Perhaps the meaning has changed due to the context of the conversation. The theory of "panspermia" would deal with how all life was "seeded." An extraterrestrial source is an option of "panspermia" I suppose.
  • SO how long before they send lichen to mars... ok the fa says they do not metabolize and "suspend" in space... but maybe if ton of lichens were sent to mars, maybe some tiny fraction of it would start surviving and developping...
  • And yet the lichens die pretty easily, even with a plain +0 pickaxe or short sword. Their corpses stay good indefinitely though, which is helpful when I'm playing with a vegetarian or vegan #conduct.
  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:12PM (#14000312) Homepage Journal
    The article states that the lichens were exposed to space for 2 weeks and were fine after that. The summary implies that 2 weeks is the upper limit for survival of the lichens. Those are two rather different outcomes.

    What I get from this is that lichens can survive for an undetermined amount of time in space. Assuming they can survive reentry, a rock from Earth could potentially deliver lichens to Mars or elsewhere.

  • Though I am not up to date on the latest speculations regarding panspermia, I never really considered it such an interesting option. So what that life-ON-EARTH came from another planet, that doesn't answer the question as to how life got started. It just means it got started someplace else in quite probably the same way that we think it might have gotten started on earth (thermal vents + rich molecule soup + anything but the hand of god :-)
    • Exactly. at some point you are faced with the final "Well, where did the FIRST life come from". Just saying that life came from "out there" is passing the buck.
  • geez you guys are supposed to be geeks, right? Well get the details right, that would be a symbiois not a composite! And i thought anything close to "symbiont" would warm the cockles of your geeky trekkie hearts...
    • who didn't shower enough and lichen started growing on his scalp. It like totally took over his brain. Now he has to deal with the ethical dilemas of being sued for trespassing on a rock for thousands of years even though only part of him is guilty.
  • by BronxBomber ( 633404 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:17PM (#14000370)
    Seen it a few times now. Peter North, Asia Carrera, and a very eager Jenna Jameson. Great money shots.

    Oh wait...

  • pffft that's nothing, I've survived in space for over 30 years. ohhhhh, OUTERspace
  • Has a great article, with pertty pictures and diagrams, regarding panspermia

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colI D=1&articleID=00073A97-5745-1359-94FF83414B7F0000 [sciam.com]
  • by digitaldc ( 879047 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:21PM (#14000421)
    "Lichens grow in the leftover spots of the natural world that are too harsh or limited for most other organisms. They are pioneers on bare rock, desert sand, cleared soil , dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal, and living bark. Able to shut down metabolically during periods of unfavorable conditions, they can survive extremes of heat, cold, and drought."

    From: http://www.lichen.com/biology.html [lichen.com]

    They tend to thrive in unfavorable conditions, maybe there could be Lichen on Mars if it had a more stable atmosphere? They could also survive on a rusty hull of a space ship, so the panspermia theory is not too far off.

    British Soldier Lichen is also very beautiful:
    http://www.buenavistatownship.org/Photos/British%2 0soldier%20lichen.jpg [buenavistatownship.org]
  • by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:25PM (#14000471) Homepage Journal
    So, The Terrible Secret of Space is... athlete's foot? That was sort of anticlimactic.
  • Hmmmf... (Score:3, Funny)

    by Alpha_Traveller ( 685367 ) * on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:28PM (#14000492) Homepage Journal
    Well it's never going to die if you keep CHECKING ON IT...15 days in space...shesh.
  • Astronaut Dave Bowman must be jealous, I'll bet he thought he lasted longer than anybody else that made it into the vacuum of space back in 2001.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    ... er scientist...

    Of COURSE panspermia is possible. Life can easily travel in space. ... if it's supposed to. The whole thing's planned, y'know.
  • The belief that humans came from somewhere else to this planet, rather than descending from species already on this planet, is too improbable to be true. Species can evolve to physically appear like other species, such as an insect evolving to look like a leaf, but their genetic makeup will not evolve toward that of an entirely different species. The fact that chimpanzee DNA is so similar to humans is incontrovertible proof that the two species descended from a common ancestor.

    (even though physical theor
  • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:35PM (#14000561)
    ...it goes on forever. And...Oh my God!...It's full of lichens!
  • The only question is when the sentient ones will arrive:

    "The things come from another planet, being able to live in interstellar space and fly through it on clumsy, powerful wings which have a way of resisting the aether but which are too poor at steering to be of much use in helping them about on earth. I will tell you about this later if you do not dismiss me at once as a madman. They come here to get metals from mines that go deep under the hills, and I think I know where they come from. They will not h
  • by poopie ( 35416 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:40PM (#14000618) Journal
    What the hell was that? Hmmm... space herpes!
    ... This ship has space herpes?
  • The experiment adds weight to the theory of panspermia - that life could somehow be transported between planets.

    Given that the panspermia theory has the weight of a neutrino, that isn't very much. Organisms in small asteroids would be incinerated in earth's atmosphere. Bugs ridding larger ones would have to survive awesome shock forces and intense kinetic heating. Earth is such an ideal organic molecular playground it doesn't seem necessary to invoke some outside agent, like Mars. I think Occam's Razor

    • Re:Lightweight idea (Score:5, Informative)

      by flyinwhitey ( 928430 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:57PM (#14000885)
      "Organisms in small asteroids would be incinerated in earth's atmosphere"

      No, you're wrong.

      "As it falls through 80 km, it loses 3 to 6 mm of surface mass per second through ablation. The melted material and metal, heated to over 1800 C, is being swept away from the meteoroid, carrying away the accumulating surface heat so efficiently that the interior remains cool."

      That was from meteorlab.com. Look it up so that next time you won't be spreading incorrect information.

  • No, sorry... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by millennial ( 830897 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @03:49PM (#14000763) Journal
    The experiment adds weight to the theory of panspermia - that life could somehow be transported between planets.

    I'll believe that as soon as they finish the experiments that show lichen's ability to survive entry into the atmosphere.
  • This made me think of that chapter in "Beyond the Mind's Eye" where the plants shoot their seeds from one planet to another. What a kick ass set of movies Miramar did, The Mind's Eye series.
  • by Darius Jedburgh ( 920018 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @04:40PM (#14001400)
    My biology teacher told me that life was designed by an intelligent designer who can do anything. If he wanted lichen to sprout rocket engines and fly between the stars he could do that too. That's why science is a pointless subject to study and I'll just get back to my cow tipping here in Kansas...
  • by HermanAB ( 661181 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @04:53PM (#14001534)
    Oh, great - so my space ship will need anti-fouling to keep space barnacles from growing on it...

    Will space barnacles and space weed slow a space ship down? Maybe if it gets stuck in the subspace propeller, or fouls the plasma intake manifold...
  • by pz ( 113803 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @05:12PM (#14001734) Journal
    Terrestrial bacteria were found to have survived for three years of lunar exposure. Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad who retrieved the camera from which these bacteria were cultured thinks this discovery is the, "most significant thing that we ever found," in the entire Apollo program.

    http://science.nasa.gov/newhome/headlines/ast01sep 98_1.htm [nasa.gov]

  • by J05H ( 5625 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @06:17PM (#14002429) Homepage
    Lichen are tough. We all knew that. What we didn't know was how tough - this is incredible news. 15 days exposed in LEO and the samples were still viable? That indicates, to me, that lichen not only "happen" to be able to survive in space, but that the base organism evolved in space and transported to Earth continually until conditions allowed it to survive here. The description of lichen as protected by minerals in exo would indicate that they are capable of forming protected mats and still photosynthesize. The abstract didn't cover it all, did the lichen hibernate or photosynthesize? I'm not sure, but the basic survival fact is huge evidence in support of panspermia, universal left-handed chirality and biology as a basic element of the universe.

    Photos from Mars show patches of greenish-brown and blue-green on rocks, cliffs and in low-lying (higher pressure) regions. The Deep Impact mission showed almost 1/3rd the mass of the comet as carbonaceous material, the researchers claim it is prebiotic. Photos from both Viking I (Gil Levin photo) and both MER rovers show "fuzzy" greenish rocks and fine filamented structures. If lichen survive in open space, they would be that much more at home in a fluffy growing medium that contains lots of water, and with a few archaea in the mix would produce exactly the compounds found in comet Tempel 1.

    I've always agreed with the tenets of panspermia, the last few months of space science has convinced me. There is life out there, and a lot of it.


    Fun note: the craft that flew the BIOPAN experiment is a Foton capsule, a direct decendant of the capsule Yuri Gagarin flew in. It is a round metal ball with a donut of equipment on the back and some antennae, same layout with somewhat newer gear.
  • by Subrafta ( 848399 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @06:23PM (#14002529)
    The experiment adds weight to the theory of panspermia - that life could somehow be transported between planets.

    Only an intelligent designer could have calculated the trajectories and orbits necessary to spread life between planets. Especially given the limited computers available at the time of creation.

  • by scottennis ( 225462 ) on Thursday November 10, 2005 @06:51PM (#14002802) Homepage
    So, God created life on another planet and then had to blast it to Earth on an asteroid or comet????

    I'm so confused!

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." -- Bertrand Russell