Could there be an Earth-based site that shares a likeness to Mars? Three School of Health and Behavioral Sciences faculty think so and are exploring this theory; their research will assist in the search for past or present life on the red planet as NASA makes strides to gain more knowledge about Mars.
For the 2023-24 academic year, Biological and Biomedical Sciences professors Hong Yang, Ph.D., Qin Leng, Ph.D., and lecturer Robert Patalano, Ph.D., received $85,730 in grants from Bryant and the Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium to search for an analog to Mars’ environment that potentially preserves organic compounds. If researchers locate an Earth-based site similar to the red planet, they believe NASA could use the location to test technologies meant for Mars and offer insight on the potential for life on the planet.
Currently, NASA’s Perseverance rover is collecting ancient lake deposits from the Jezero Crater on Mars in hopes of returning them to Earth. Researchers can then analyze the rock samples for organic matter to find evidence of past or present life.
“If there is organic matter, could it be preserved and what condition would it be in?” Hong inquires. He notes that if organic matter isn’t found in the Mars samples, then the question becomes did the matter decay or was there never any?
To explore these questions, researchers suggest that Mars’ potential duplicate environment exists at the 16-million-year-old Clarkia middle Miocene Lake in Idaho.
“The site has many similar aspects to the Mars rover’s landing site,” says Hong. “There are lake deposits on both, they have soil derived from basaltic volcanic rock, they are under high CO2 conditions, and have a similar set of minerals.”
Over the past few decades, Clarkia has been a testing bed for new technologies in organic geochemistry, molecular biology, and isotope geology, ranging from compound specific isotope analysis to the application of the Polymerase Chain Reaction.
Leng adds that the location is perhaps the best fossil site of the Miocene Age with extraordinary organic preservation. Most sites require researchers to dig and search for fossils, she says, but fossils in this site are so abundant that individuals could cut through the clay-like rock with a kitchen knife and find a fossil.
“Plants tended to preserve very nicely, with some leaves of original color: you can imagine orange, red, yellow, and dark green” says Leng, adding that as part of this grant, researchers will try to understand why the biomolecules have withstood the test of time at the Clarkia site. “Because they are so well preserved, you can get all kinds of unstable and stable molecules.”
On Sunday, Bryant researchers flew to Idaho to begin their sample collection and work with molecular biologists from Wayne State University; Bryant researchers will handle the organic geochemistry portion of the research while their Michigan-based colleagues will work on the DNA discovery before bringing the two datasets together.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to get involved,” Hong says, adding that current undergraduates will be part of the research process once the Bryant faculty returns with samples.
Students can test different technologies on samples in the lab, apply their learning to classroom solving, and develop abstracts to attend conferences and present their data. Once the initial research is complete, researchers say this project will lead to the submission of a comprehensive research grant to NASA.
“Exploration on Mars is only the beginning,” Hong says. “In the near future, if NASA develops new technologies but cannot send them over [to Mars], then potentially they can go to Clarkia to test it.”