who will be the martian champion?


I just got my new issue of The Planetary Report, and here’s my own report:
This October, a Russian sample return mission is leaving for a three-year round trip to everyone’s favorite Martian moon, Phobos. Along for the ride will be a small titanium container full of Earth organisms. Which ones will survive the radiation, the cold vacuum, and the lack of gravity? Place your bets. Here are the contenders.

  • Representing bacteria, I present to you bacillus safenis, a hardy organism that was found thriving in a “clean room” at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Also carrying the bacteria flag will be deinococcus radiodurans, actually nicknamed “Conan the Bacterium” for its ability to survive a radiation dose a thousand times greater than what would kill a human. Finally, we have bacillus subtilis, another well-know hardy radiation-resistant specimen.
  • The archaea think they’ll kick bacteria’s butt. They’re sending haloarcula marismortui, a salt-loving extremophile, methanothermobacter wolfeii, a methane producer that lives in your guts, and, last but not least, pyrococcus furiosus, a mean little bastard who can thrive at 200 degree F.
  • The eukaryotea are laughing at these puny astronauts and their big talk. Take a bow, saccharomyces cerevisiae (that’s brewer’s yeast, to you, reader). If it lives, the first Martian moon beer cannot be far off. And arabidopsis thaliana was the only plant with enough fiber to volunteer for this mission. The animal kingdom has wisely chosen to send some tardigrades (“water bears”). This mofo can be frozen to a few degrees above absolute zero, cooked up to 300 degrees F, subjected to a vacuum, squished with 6,000 atmospheres of pressure, and still give you the finger with its tiny claws.

There’s even a little spoiler in this fight. The Russians are adding a few grains of permafrost from the Siberian arctic. They contain a small colony of interdependent organisms. It’s anyone’s guess what this wild card will bring to the mix.

I helped pay for this crazy endurance contest by being a member of the The Planetary Society. Take the hint and join. In my opinion, the bacteria are going to wipe up the floor with those other micro-wimps. They’ll do a flagellum high-five at Phobos and sing repetitive, dorky bacteria songs all the way back.

Needless to say, this experiment will help us learn about the ability of organisms to survive a trip through space in a meteor. Can one planet seed another one with life?


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