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Yellowstone National Park (NASA Ames participation)

Scientists from NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., have visited Yellowstone National Park (located in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) to conduct various kinds of research about living things.

Hot springs and other locations at Yellowstone are places where scientists can seek and examine 'extremophile' forms of life. Extremophiles are organisms that thrive in extreme environments. If similar conditions exist on other planets, those extraterrestrial environments could contain life.

Conditions in extreme environments are far too severe for human beings to live comfortably in those areas. The conditions may include extreme acidity, pressure, temperature, salinity, radiation, dryness and oxygen level.

In the words of NASA Astrobiology Institute scientist Lynn Rothschild of NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., extreme is "in the eye of the beholder." Scientists have found organisms called hyper-thermophiles that live in high temperatures that would melt human cellular membranes. There are even organisms that live in near-boiling sulfuric acid in some locations on Earth.

The only model of life in the universe currently available to scientists is life on Earth. According to scientists, life on Earth overwhelmingly is dominated by microbial life, both in terms of biomass and the amount of time present on Earth. Eighty percent of the history of life on Earth is the history of exclusively microbial life, NASA researchers note. Microbes have much to teach scientists about successful strategies for staying alive on geologically active planets over extremely long periods of time, scientists observe.

NASA Ames scientists have made oxygen measurements and have taken other data from microbial mats in Yellowstone National Park. Astrobiologists believe that microbial mats on Earth may be key in researchers' attempts to identify and recognize life elsewhere in the solar systems.

The NASA Ames team is interested in the changes that occur in microbial mats as they become lithified (changed to stone) to form stromatolites.

On the early Earth, before higher multicellular organisms evolved, photosynthetic microbial mats literally covered the planet, and microbes were the only life forms. Later, as higher plants evolved, photosynthetic mat communities had to compete for sunlight and nutrients. The evolution of animals brought further pressures because mats are a nutritious food.

Stromatolites, defined as "laminated organo-sedimentary structures formed by the trapping and binding, and/or precipitation of minerals by microorganisms," can be thought of as microbial mats in which a rock-like layer of either sand or precipitated minerals is also present. Fossil stromatolites constitute the earliest and most pervasive record of life on Earth, according to astrobiologists.

Media contact:

John Bluck
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Phone: 650-604-5026

Key Mission People
Lynn Rothschild of NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Related links:

Linking Our Origins to Our Future –
Ames Research Center maintains a coordinated program that integrates a broad, interdisciplinary investigation of the origins, evolution, and future of habitable environments and life. . .

April 24, 2000
Tiny fungi that make forests possible are significantly affected by clear-cutting tree stands, perhaps altering forests and plant types that re-grow, according to a recent paper in the Canadian Journal of Botany.

Sept. 16, 1999
NASA scientists are planning to use `mini-monster cams' as a bold new step in preparation for the search for extraterrestrial life on moons and planets. On Sept. 17 – 26, 1999, researchers will conduct an experiment at Yellowstone National Park, WY, in an effort to find tiny multi-cellular organisms that may be living in the Hot Springs. Conventional wisdom says that only single-celled life, such as bacteria, could exist in Yellowstone's boiling waters, according to scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Sept. 16, 1999
NASA scientists have found that when it comes to teaching educators about volcanoes in the solar system, there's no place like Jupiter's fiery moon Io -- except for Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Jan. 13, 1999
Life on the Edge –
NASA scientists are joining forces with researchers from the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica and the University of California's White Mountain Research Station to conduct a unique educational activity in microbiology. It's a hands-on experiment designed for students of all ages to investigate life in extreme environments and to learn about the possibilities for life elsewhere in the Solar System.