Development & Alumni Relations Office 

Queen’s researcher joins NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group 

A Queen’s scientist, Dr John Hallsworthof the University’s School of Biological Sciences, has been recruited by NASA to contribute to a high-level, international investigation into the possibility of the planet Mars becoming contaminated with microbes from Earth.

Dr Hallsworth is one of just 22 scientists from around the world – and the only one from Britain or Ireland – participating in the Special Regions-Science Analysis Group (SR-SAG).

The group is pooling knowledge from a range of disciplines – microbiology, geochemistry, geological data analysis (from robotic and orbiting devices) – in order to inform future international policy on space exploration.

Dr Hallsworth’s work draws on his pioneering research into the limits of life on Earth, in particular the stress responses of extreme, weird types of fungi as well as other extraordinary microbes. He has also discovered a new type of chemistry that limits life, and therefore makes some parts of Earth sterile.

As part of the SR-SAG, he is helping identify the ‘Special Regions’ of Mars; those which may have sufficient moisture and a suitable temperature to be able to sustain microbial life as we know it here on Earth. One of the main drivers behind identifying these regions is to avoid contaminating them with microbial life carried by spacecraft launched from Earth.

Dr Hallsworth said: “Even though spacecraft are assembled in clean rooms, producing a sterile spacecraft has not thus far been achieved; they are populated with microbial stowaways so biological contamination is a real risk. Furthermore, if any future spacecraft were to crash-land on Mars in one of these Special Regions, it could potentially act as major source of microbial contaminants.

“Another topic that will become important in future is that of potential resources for human habitation. For example, there has been talk of establishing a human base on Mars and also interest in mining the planet for minerals. It is therefore important to avoid chemical or microbial contamination of potential resources, such as Martian water or ice. No-one has yet proved that there is deep groundwater on Mars, but it is plausible as there is certainly surface ice and atmospheric water vapour, so we wouldn’t want to contaminate it and make it unusable by the introduction of microorganisms.”

While Dr Hallsworth's work is a world away from popular, sci-fi notions of ‘little green men’, he does not dismiss the idea that cellular life may have once existed on ancient Mars.

He said: “It’s not impossible that cellular life originally came to Earth from Mars. Over extended time-scales countless Martian rocks (in the form of meteorites) have fallen onto Earth. Some Earth microbes inhabit rocks, so if any of these Martian meteorites which fell in the distant past had contained microbes these could have gone on to develop into the life-forms now found on Earth.”


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