Alysa Fratto, Westminster College
Although the idea of life on other planets is mused over by many, the scientific study of the potential for extraterrestrial life did not begin until the mid-1950s (SETI, 2013). Since then, many technological advancements have been made that make the study of life on other planets simpler, however it is inherently difficult to study the potential for life in an environment that one cannot access. To address this issue, scientists look on Earth for extreme environments that mimic those found elsewhere in the universe.
In 2008 a researchers were able to image a series of salt flats on Mars (Osterloo et al, 2008). An earthly analog for these Martian salt deposits is the Bonneville Salt Flats (BSF), which is located 115 miles west of Salt Lake City, UT. The BSF spans 40 square miles and is solid salt crust that varies in thickness from less than an inch to 5 feet (Lines, 2010). With the extreme salt concentrations and lack of abundant nutrients, it seems unlikely that anything could live on the BSF. However, using laboratory cultivation techniques, our group has established that microbial life inhabits BSF (Kleba, 2013). The goal of this study is to characterize the microbial community present using cultivation and molecular methods to better understand the life inhabiting this extreme environment. Thus far, BSF microbial isolates have a yielded a variety of cell shapes (round, rod, pleomorphic) and colony morphologies (red, white, smooth), suggesting this unique ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms. Future studies will focus on using genetic techniques to identify each isolate. Once we have established the identity of the microbes surviving on the BSF we can then use them as model organisms to better understand the kind of life that may be present on the salt flats of Mars.