Pete Waller (retired) May 19, 1967
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
CONSORTIUM OF 22 SCIENTISTS WILL LOOK FOR EVIDENCE OF LIFE IN LUNAR SAMPLES AT AMES
When the first sample of lunar soil is brought back to the Earth, eight guest scientists will join 14 others at the Ames Research Center near San Francisco to analyze it for evidence of life, and the building blocks of life.
The presence of living organisms in the Moon material to be returned by the Apollo astronauts is considered unlikely because of the harsh lunar environment. But scientists feel that not even the remotest chance can be ignored because of the biological significance of such a find Ð and because the true nature of the lunar soil and the ability of life to survive great environmental extremes is still unknown.
It is known that life is very hardy. It is almost impossible to find a place on Earth without it. Organisms grow in boiling hot springs, and in 100 percent brine solutions. They have also been found to multiply in simulated Martian conditions in which the temperature was cycled between 78 degrees Fahrenheit and minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit each day.
Organisms live in the coolant fluids of nuclear reactors, where radiation is far more severe than on the Moon. They are preserved for later growth by drying and storing in a vacuum (a Moon-like environment).
The chances of finding fossil organisms in the lunar sample are also being considered. The reason is that the Moon may once have had an atmosphere, and that living organisms have developed at an earlier time on the Moon.
The finding of the chemical building blocks of life is also a possibility because these molecules can be formed non-biologically. For example, amino acids, identical to those found in living cells, have been produced from simple gases by ordinary chemical processes.
The consortium of scientists gathered at NASAÕs Ames Research Center will use the analytical facilities of the Ames Exobiology Division. This equipment has been assembled for study of extraterrestrial life.
It currently is used to develop life-detection systems for use on other planets; to seek evidence of life in Earth rocks billions of years old, and in meteorites (pieces of space rock believed by many to come from the asteroid belt); and to study the chemical evolution of life on this planet (Earth). These studies will help with understanding the assumed origin of life on other planets.
Additional laboratory space, containing biologically ultra-clean facilities, will be installed at Ames to prepare the lunar sample for analysis, and to culture it for living organisms.
The analysis will fall into four sections: chemical, isotopic, biological and electron microscopic. Tests will be sequenced for maximum results from available material.
Principal investigator for the chemical studies is Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma, Chief of the Ames Chemical Evolution Branch.
Co-investigators in chemistry are: Professor C.W. Gehrke, University of Missouri; Professor K.B. Krauskopf, Stanford University; Dr. R.I. Greger, U.S. Geological Survey; and Dr. G.W. Hodgson, National Research Council of Canada. Ames co-investigators in chemistry are: G.E. Pollock, Dr. L.P. Zill, Dr. M.R. Heinrich, Dr. Klaus Keil, Dr. K.A. Kvenvolden, H.S. Ginoza, Dr. R.D. Johnson and Dr. J. Hayes.
The chemists hope to get 11 pounds of sample, taken about three inches below the lunar surface.
They will look for organic carbon, amino acids, purines, pyrimidines, sugars, nucleosides, nucleotides, hydrocarbons, fatty acids and porphyrins.
Virtually all the analytical techniques of chemistry and biochemistry will be represented, and more the 15 major pieces of specialized equipment will be used.
The researchers will first use extraction procedures, following by separation methods such as: thin-layer chromatography, electrophoresis and ion-exchange chromatography. The separated material will then be identified by a variety of spectroscopic methods. Finally, they will analyze millionths or billionths of a gram of material by mass spectrometry.
Consortium scientists studying radioactive isotopes will look for differences in the distribution of the isotopes, sulfur 32 and 34 and carbon 12 and 13, considered to result from biological activity. They will also compare distributions of oxygen 18 and 16 with distributions of these isotopes in Earth rocks to check for a common origin. The distribution of carbon isotopes will also be compared with that found in meteorites.
Principal investigator for isotope studies is Dr. I.R. Kaplan, University of California at Los Angeles. Co-investigator is Dr. T.C. Hoering, Carnegie Institute, Washington, D.C.
The biological studies of the lunar material will seek to isolate and culture living organisms from the Moon.
The biologists hope to receive two pounds of the lunar sample. It must be gathered with sterile tools, and packed in the lunar vacuum in a leak-proof, sterile container.
Principal investigator for biology is Vance I. Oyama, Chief of the Ames Life Detection Branch. Co-investigators are: Dr. E.L. Merek, Dr. L.H. Frommhagen and Dr. M.P. Silverman of Ames.
The bacteria studies will assume that lunar life will grow under Earth conditions. And this assumes that the basic organization of life is similar everywhere, based primarily on the carbon atom.
Since contamination by Earth organisms is possible, controlled, localized growth on culture plates will be sought. This way, individual colonies of bacteria can be kept separate, allowing identification of colonies of organisms unlike any on Earth.
If Earth-like bacteria are found, it may be impossible to distinguish them from contaminating Earth bacteria.
The biologists will use 11 different nutrients and three different atmospheric mixes (carbon dioxide and nitrogen, with three levels of oxygen). Temperatures will be 50 degrees, 77 degrees, 95 degrees and 131 degrees Fahrenheit in special culturing chambers.
These conditions will permit growth of: microorganisms which need oxygen, those needing little oxygen and those killed by oxygen; organisms which fix nitrogen from the air, and those which get energy from light or chemical processes, such as oxidation of iron (rusting); and organisms which require organic material produced by other organisms, and those sensitive to temperature and salt conditions.
Electron microscope and electron microprobe studies will look for fossils of microorganisms, and for organic products. These experimenters will describe the ultra-fine structure of lunar material. They will fix, section, dissolve, grind and polish it for best observations.
Two principal investigators are: Professor Elso Barghoorn, Harvard University; and Professor Preston Cloud, University of California at Los Angeles. Co-investigator is Dr. D.E. Philpott of Ames.
Dr. Barghoorn has used similar methods to detect life in pre-cambrian (3.2 billion-year-old) rocks.
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