Curiosity Rover May Have Carried Bacterial Life to Mars

By Bill Andrews | May 21, 2014 2:43 pm

curiosity rover

We humans are known to be pretty generous with our germs. Just as the transatlantic explorers of old unknowingly brought diseases with them to the so-called New World, it turns out NASA sent the Curiosity rover to Mars with its own germs — 377 strains of 65 bacteria species, to be exact, according to a recent analysis of swabs taken before the rover launched.

The discovery will go toward making future missions cleaner, as well as revealing a little more about the crazy stuff life can endure.

A Buggy Rover

Despite the rigorous scrubbing all NASA machinery gets before launching, it’s inevitable that some bacteria will persist. After Curiosity’s cleaning (which admittedly could have gone a little better) researchers swabbed the car-sized rover’s surfaces to see what bacteria they might have missed. And a few of the stowaways seem likely to have survived the trip to Mars. As a Nature News story puts it:

Most were related to the genus Bacillus. In the lab, scientists exposed the microbes to desiccation, UV exposure, cold and pH extremes. Nearly 11 percent of the 377 strains survived more than one of these severe conditions. Thirty-one per cent of the resistant bacteria did not form tough, protective spore coats; the researchers suspect that they used other biochemical means of protection, such as metabolic changes.

This is the first time scientists had ever looked at all the actual microbes collected from Curiosity. The study describing this work was presented this week at the American Society for Microbiology meeting in Boston.

Life, Life Everywhere

The problems with sending our bugs into space are twofold, as Popular Science describes:

Scientists don’t want to contaminate other planets with Earth life forms. They also don’t want contamination in their own instruments, which could make it appear that they have detected alien life when they’re really only measuring Earth-origin hitchhikers.

But given that NASA’s probes will continue to explore the solar system in our stead (including another high-profile life-seeking mission to Mars in 6 years), at least this information will help inform future sterilization procedures, since we know what kind of bugs like to stick around. With any luck, this time things will end better than they did on those transatlantic voyages.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • Hosni

    “… according to a recent analysis of swabs taken before the rover launched.”

    So: scientists analyzed swabs in 2013 or 2014 for a rocket launched in 2011. Very timely!

    It will be interesting to discover whether strains of super-bacteria are waiting when humans eventually land on Mars.

    • John Griffin

      “So: scientists analyzed swabs in 2013 or 2014 for a rocket launched in 2011. Very timely!”
      Seems like these scientists could easily qualify to get jobs in the VA system.
      Perhaps all bureaucrats should be swabbed to see what bacteria they all seem to carry – maybe then scientists who are actually productive could find out what’s wrong with our bureaucracy and fix it!

      • effinayright

        Reminds me of old japes about aliens coming to Earth and searching in vain for intelligent life in Washington, DC.

    • Jack Bradley

      They will be 6 feet wide, highly mobile, highly intelligent, fast moving, remorseless, poisonous, carnivorous.and vote democrat. This will be a true horror.

  • Uncle Al

    Ethylene oxide medical sterilization is more effective than managerial process originating in a high school biology textbook. Human-grade product sterilization is not rocket science, obviously.

    Perhaps terraforming Mars began with Deinococcus radiodurans (admittedly an obligate aerobe), Nitrosomonas europaea, Trichosporonoides nigrescens, or endolith xerophile halophile psychrophiles in general.

    Mars’ surface is an intensely oxidizing environment – raw solar UV, ionizing radiation. Local water eutectics consistent with local observation are water/hydrogen peroxide (mp – 56 C) and water/magnesium perchlorate (mp -70 C). Buried aerobes may then be survivable.

    Seeding Jupiter’s chemical clouds with a rich microbial diversity should be a NASA priority. Kickstart evolution again.

    • jimbow

      Why would you seed Jupiter, of what use will it be? Just because we can dose not mean we should.

      • Uncle Al

        Of what value are babies? Their value lies in not all of them surviving. “Look to the right, look to the left. One of you will not graduate.”

        Michigan State, September 1969, 1200+ enrolled in Majors Organic Chemistry. June 1973, 15 BS/Chem. Evolution is a hoot if you are one of the survivors. Evolve, everywhere.

  • Alan

    There does seem to be a temptation among humans to be Johnney Appleseed. Many places have been illegally seeded with tasty edible, yet local environmentally hostile species. Most likely caused by our genetic predisposition to spread out, both ourselves as well as the component life forms of our support eco system. Who of us haven’t wondered with fascination if it is possible for us to modify or engineer life earth forms that could thrive in some of the extraterrestrial locales we’ve identified so far?

    • Shootist

      Not a temptation, a matter of survival. Given enough time we will have to move, even if it is to avoid the Sun expanding.

      Of course this requires a long view, people have trouble conceptualizing a century, several geologic ages is probably too much to ask.

      • Alan

        Yes, the primary purpose, if not essentially sole purpose of all life on this planet is to reproduce and spread to everywhere we can. Rapid expansion whenever opportunity presents has been our most successful survival trait. Call it exploration or contamination. It’s all a function of that basic drive. The public wants people out there, not just robots. The probes are only acceptable if only to scout the path for humans to follow.

  • Ziv

    I would rather we send a lander that released high altitude lichens and the toughest plants imaginable. Mars is our next home. Lets start landscaping the place. It isn’t like there are any owners to object to our improvements.

    • Stephen W. Houghton

      Here Here!

  • Stephen W. Houghton

    Why is it the “so called new world”? Why is discover magazine doing down the achievements of modern science?

    • IbThinker

      I believe Discover Magazine may have in fact been referring to Colonial North America, and the wiping out indigenous populations via foreign disease.

      • Uncle Al

        And introducing the honey bee, and reintroducing the earthworm to Canada. And bringing in horses, two wheels on an axle, ferrous metallurgy, written alphabetic language, and the Protestant Reformation.

        Imagine the locals trading Manhattan – skyscrapers, wiring, plumbing, roads, subways – for a bag of beads and a promise of Obamacare.

    • Jeffery Coleman

      Maybe because people are already living here?

  • Friz Martin

    I thought that’s how we got to Earth.

  • BartNJ

    Shouldn’t we be terra- forming Mars by now, anyway? We’re definitely running out of time on this planet

    • stevedodge833

      Sure. And exactly how do we go about that? We can’t even manage our own planet properly.

  • stevedodge833

    Why blame Curiosity? Every probe, lander and crawler we’ve sent there beforehand beat it to the game of (theoretically) planting life on Mars.


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