Using extremophile samples to determine the possibility for life on Mars

Faculty Sponsor

Laura Rowe


Arts and Sciences



Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-29-2021


Extremophile organisms are uniquely suited to survive under extreme conditions, such as extreme cold or heat, radical pressure changes, high levels of radioactivity, and many other conditions. Extremophile samples collected from Yellowstone National Park’s geothermal features and Mono Lake are significant to astrobiological research because they not only survive, but thrive in conditions of extreme salinity, heat, sulfur content, and variability in pH. Extremophiles are often studied in astrobiology research because of their ability to survive in extreme environments that may be present on extraterrestrial planets and satellites, such as Mars. Astrobiology research is the study of organisms that may be present in extraterrestrial conditions on other planets. The surface of Mars has many conditions that may make life as we know it challenging, including a mainly carbon dioxide atmosphere, low pressure, extremely low temperature, high salt levels, and other factors not common to life on Earth. Although Martian conditions may limit the occurrence of sentient life, the possibility for microbial extremophile life is a possibility that is being explored by current NASA missions, such as the Mars Perseverance Rover that landed on Mars in February 2021. In this study, we use samples collected from Yellowstone National Park and Mono Lake and employ 16SrRNA gene sequencing to determine which microbial species are present. We will then analyze the genomic and proteomic (DNA and protein) profiles of these organisms in order to hypothesize what building block profiles they possess that allow them to survive and thrive in extreme conditions that may be encountered on the surface or subsurface of Mars. Furthermore, we will use LC-MS (liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry) to understand the stability of unnatural versus natural amino acids when exposed to these extreme conditions using the field samples collected as natural, and complex, water sources. This understanding may pave the way for comprehending the possibility of non-Earth life forms utilizing alternative, “unnatural” building blocks in their protein construction in order to adapt to non-Earth environmental conditions. Therefore, the use of extremophile organisms as well as unnatural amino acids may allow for a deeper understanding of the biological building blocks extraterrestrial life may use that will allow them to thrive in their unique and challenging environmental niches.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

Alyssa Jarabek is a junior chemistry and biology double major. She is seeking to attend graduate school with the final goal of getting her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences focusing in infectious disease and vaccine development.

Michayla VanAken is a junior biology and chemistry double major on a premedical track. She is seeking to attend medical school with the final goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

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