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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tough Bugs: Conan the Bacterium

Sometimes significant discoveries are made by accident. Take Conan the Bacterium. Somebody opened a can of meat that had been sterilized using radiation and noticed that the meat was spoiled. This did not make sense – the radiation dose was designed to kill anything that could turn the meat inside the can rotten.
But rotten it was. So what had survived the radiation and rotted the meat?
Enter a genetically engineered microbe which proved to be very tough.  The culprit was able to take a thousand times more radiation than we could, and survive. Some NASA admirers called it Conan the Bacterium.
It's a quick responder, because it can repair its own DNA within a day even if it is exposed to radiation continuously.
This fact parachuted the tough bug onto the passenger list of the first crew of Earthlings to fly to another planet: a Russian robot spacecraft blasted off to fly around Mars and then return to earth in 2012. Conan the Bacterium joined brewer's yeast, thale cress and water bears as part of the package of living things to make the trip to Mars as part of the LIFE experiment (Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment).
The aim of LIFE is to find out if living organisms can survive unprotected in space. If they can, this finding could support a theory known as panspermia, which says that simple organisms may be able to drift around space for years until they land on planets like earth.
Tardigrade or Water Bear
In other words, Conan the Bacterium could help us figure out if life really originated somewhere "out there" and drifted onto earth and sprouted here.
The fact that we have recently found tough bugs that can survive doses of radiation five hundred times greater than ones what would kill humans, or that can live in acid vents on sea floors or in other hostile environments supports the theory of panspermia.
 The LIFE expedition uses a Russian space craft:
The Russian mission, called Phobus-Grunt (the Russian word for soil is grunt), will take 10 months to reach Mars and will then spend several more months in orbit round the planet before landing on Phobos. It will collect a sample of its soil and blast back to Earth, along with the Life capsule. These few scoops of material will become the first sample of extraterrestrial soil to be brought to Earth since the lunar missions of the 1970s...
The Phobos-Grunt mission will last for 34 months and will carry its samples of Earth's humbler life forms in a three-inch-diameter titanium case. These will include the bacterium deinococcus radiodurans, whose ability to survive intense radiation has earned it the scientific nickname Conan the Bacterium.

Other life forms will include thale cress; tiny water creature tardigrade - or water bear - which can also survive extraordinary extremes of temperature and pressure; samples of brewer's yeast, one of the most widely studied organisms on Earth; and some grains of permafrost from the Siberian Arctic. This last sample contains many different microbes and will be used to determine if a living colony of interdependent organisms are hardier and more resistant to radiation than a single microbial species.
Phobus Grunt
In our novel Obelisk Seven, our heroine works with tough bugs to find out where a new microbe that is eating the carbon in oil and coal deposits came from, and how to stop it before it seriously reduces fossil fuels we use to fuel our cars and factories.
A protein that emits infrared light found inside Conan the Bacterium has been genetically modified to make it brighter, and injected into mice. The glow emitted from these proteins could give scientists the ability to view inside living animals, and allow them to watch real-time biological processes take place.
Tough bugs they are, but useful bugs, too!

Mars

Conan the Bacterium

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