LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A Cal State Northridge professor has been awarded $1.3 million grant to search for signs of extraterrestrial life in the frozen soil of Earth.
The three-year grant from the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) will allow Northridge biology professor Rachel Mackelprang and her collaborators at the U.S. Geological Survey to study the connection between frozen soil and the possibility of life on frozen galactic planets and comets.
“[NASA] is interested in how life survives in extreme conditions on Earth,” Mackelprang said in a statement from CSUN. “[This is] the type of life that may survive on extraterrestrial bodies.”
Much of the study will focus on Alaskan permafrost – which researchers say has been frozen for 5,000 years – and will analyze how organisms on a frozen terrain can survive, similar to what NASA is studying on frozen planets and comets.
Starting in spring of 2016, the team will venture out to a remote part of Alaska to retrieve permafrost soil samples. Researchers will then separate and sort thousands of microbial cells and begin sequencing DNA from those cells at Mackelprang’s CSUN lab.
“We have to put the [DNA sequence] back together computationally,” she said. “It would be a little bit like taking a bunch of copies of the New York Times, [where] each story would be a species of organism, shredding it all up completely, so you have a pile of strips of paper with sentences on it [like DNA components], and piece the Times back together.”
Mackelprang, who says her research initially began in 2009 when she began examining the affects of climate change on permafrost, said she hopes to discover the ways in which organisms on Earth survive in frozen conditions for long periods of time.
She says her research is highly relevant to climate change because of the “enormous amounts of carbon” stored in permafrost, which once thawed, allows microorganisms to degrade the carbon and “breathe” it into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.
“This process is contributing to global warming,” Mackelprang added.
Both CSUN graduate and undergraduate students are also expected to take part in the research project.