Limits Of Life On Earth: Are They The Key To Life On Other Planets?

October 15, 1997


New Nsf Grants To Foster Answers

From scalding hot places that rival Dante's Inferno to frigid locations colder than the dark side of the moon, scientists taking part in a $6 million National Science Foundation (NSF) research initiative are searching for life forms on Earth that may provide insight about possible life on other planets. The first NSF awards in this initiative -- which is titled Life in Extreme Environments (LExEn) -- involve more than 20 research projects and some 40 scientists who will look at life in Earth's most extreme habitats.

"Life flourishes on the earth in an incredibly wide range of environments," explains Mike Purdy, coordinator of the NSF initiative. "These environments may be analogous to the harsh conditions that exist now, or have existed, on earth and other planets. The study of microbial life forms and the extreme environments they inhabit can provide new insights into how these organisms adapted to diverse environments, and shed light on the limits within which life can exist."

NSF's directorates of biological sciences; engineering; geosciences; mathematical and physical sciences; and office of polar programs are providing total funding of $6 million to explore the relationships between organisms and the environments in which they exist. A strong emphasis has been placed on environments that are near the extremes of conditions on earth. Funding will also support research about our solar system and beyond, to help identify possible new sites for life beyond earth.

Scientists are studying environments such as the earth's hydrothermal systems, sea ice and ice sheets, anoxic habitats, hypersaline lakes, high altitude or polar deserts, and human-engineered environments such as those created for industrial processes. Projects involve finding techniques for isolating and culturing microbes found in extreme environments, developing methods of studying these microbes in their natural habitats and devising technologies for recovering non-contaminated samples.

HIGHLIGHTS OF LExEn PROJECTS

-NSF-





LIST OF LExEn AWARDS



National Science Foundation

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