- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beware extraterrestrials? Perhaps they should beware Earth.

Even as British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking cautions us not to engage in small talk with nomadic, dysfunctional aliens from other planets comes this news from biologists.

“Bacteria common to spacecraft may be able to survive the harsh environs of Mars long enough to inadvertently contaminate Mars with terrestrial life,” said a report released Tuesday from the University of Central Florida and the Space Life Sciences Laboratory at Kennedy Space Center.

The findings seem gleaned from the old sci-fi classic “War of the Worlds,” where humanity prevailed once hostile aliens were felled by the simple human cold virus.

This time around, we’re talking the dreaded E. coli bacteria — the same mean germ that contaminates earthbound fast foods and picnic fare, with illness sure to follow.

It can survive on Mars.

In a week-long lab experiment, the researchers replicated conditions on the proverbial red planet, from low oxygen to cold temperatures and dry atmosphere. They concluded that the bacteria would likely survive, particularly if it were tucked into the dark niches of a spacecraft or even buried in the dusty soil of the Martian surface.

“If long-term microbial survival is possible on Mars, then past and future explorations of Mars may provide the microbial inoculum for seeding Mars with terrestrial life,” the study said.

To date, a dozen spacecraft from U.S., Russian or European projects have either landed or crashed on the surface of Mars. They most likely had a few extra passengers.

“Despite cleaning and sterilization measures taken to significantly reduce microbial bioloads on spacecraft, diverse microbial communities remain at the time of launch,” the study said, also noting that typical analyses “likely underestimate the biological diversity present on spacecraft.”

And they are doozies. Among others, the potential space traveling bacteria population includes, strains of staphylococcus, and streptococcus.

It’s not as if NASA isn’t fully aware of the possibility of leaving interplanetary cooties behind. The federal agency has an office of Planetary Protection whose the mission is to guard “solar system bodies (planets, moons, comets and asteroids) from contamination by Earth life, and protecting Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies.”

The United Nations has been ahead of the game since 1967, when it hammered out the official “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies” that requires its international signers to avoid “harmful contamination” of the spots we visit.

The new report, meanwhile, said that more research was needed to determine whether an E. coli outbreak on Mars would compromise future projects, particularly those intended to offer definitive proof that life exists on the planet.

“It is essential to conduct studies on whether terrestrial micro organisms can undergo active metabolism and replication under Mars conditions. Until more comprehensive understandings of these two processes are achieved, accurately predicting the risks of the forward contamination of Mars will remain elusive,” the report concluded.

The report was published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

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