The Search For Life

Search For Life

Mary DeVita, graduate student at UNLV’s microbiology department, uses a flame torch to sterilize tops on test bottles at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas Friday, Jan. 3. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

By Yesenia Amaro

It’s a mouthful: Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator.

Many people may not know how to pronounce that, let alone what it means.

It’s the name of a life form found deep underground.

The bacterium was identified about a decade ago in South Africa, about 2.5 miles underground, said Duane Moser, an associate research professor at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, who was in on the find while working for Princeton University.

“It was a big discovery,” he recalled.

A similar approach used for that discovery could serve as a model to search for evidence of life in extraterrestrial places.

Today, Moser is part of a research team working on a $6.7 million NASA Astrobiology Institute project called Life Underground. Jan Amend, the principal investigator based at the University of Southern California, leads the team.

The team’s scientists have investigated life deep underground and also beneath the sea floor. It is the first coordinated project that brings together researchers from those two fields with an eye toward creating a model for detecting life on other planets, Moser said.

Together, they will study microorganisms that live in the Earth’s subsurface biosphere, according to a USC announcement of the grant. The pitch to NASA for this project was that if there is life on Mars — or any other planet — it would most likely be preserved below ground, Amend said.

“We argue that if there is life, or evidence of past life, we would find evidence on the subsurface,” he said. “Ultimately, what NASA is interested in is extraterrestrial life. If there is life, great. If there’s no life, why not? But the best planet to study is Earth because we have better access. NASA realizes that we can use Earth as a study site and as a comparable site.”

The team’s work could become a model for collecting evidence of life throughout the solar system, Moser said.

“This is a truly special project,” Moser said. “This had never been done before.”

The team is starting its second year in a five-year project, Amend said.

Before winter ends, Moser will head to South Dakota, where the team of researchers will meet at the Sanford Underground Research Facility. Horizontal drilling, which will be done at 4,850 feet underground, is being conducted at the facility for a separate project. Moser, with other team scientists, will be there to take samples of what’s extracted.

Staff with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which works on NASA projects, will also be there to test life-detection equipment on the samples, Moser said. Those tests will help on future NASA deployments, wherever they may be, he added.

Moser, who is also the field coordinator for NASA’s role in the drilling, will bring samples to his lab at the Desert Research Institute. He plans to extract DNA from the samples to determine what microbes are present and will also try to grow microbes in a recreated environment.

The other team researchers will do similar work in their own labs.

NASA is interested in knowing more about “life as we know it” and “evidence of life as we don’t know it,” Moser said.

Yesenia Amaro is a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact her at


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