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October 31, 2014

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DRI researcher embarks on ‘Life Underground’ project

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Steve Marcus

Duane Moser, a microbial and molecular ecologist at the Desert Research Institute, is shown in his lab at DRI Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. Moser is part of a team of researchers that just received a $6.6 million NASA grant to explore life underground.

DRI Researcher Looks for Life Underground

Duane Moser, a microbial and molecular ecologist at the Desert Research Institute, is shown in his lab at DRI Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. Moser is part of a team of researchers that just received a $6.6 million NASA grant to explore life underground. Launch slideshow »

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Seated in his office at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, Duane Moser prepares for his next research project.

The opportunity to sit at a desk and talk will be rare once he starts his research. His work doesn’t exactly fit the office-job mold.

Moser, a geomicrobiologist, is part of an investigative research effort that aims to detect and characterize tiny organisms found thousands of feet beneath the Earth’s surface.

“The search for how deep life gets its energy is one of the central questions of the whole field,” Moser said.

The collaborative project, based at the University of Southern California, has been awarded a $6.6 million grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

The goal isn’t just to observe how microorganisms get their energy; the team is interested in how far beneath the ground it can find life, how it survives and which types of organisms are there.

“This is a part of the Earth’s biosphere about which very little is known,” said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

The researchers will collect samples for on-location and lab analysis. They’ll also do on-site analysis of the earth with specially designed tools.

The team goes a step further, not just observing underground life, but also attempting to culture, or grow, the organism samples and study them in labs.

“Duane is the one who’s going to get us underground,” said Jan Amend of USC, who is spearheading the project.

Moser will be in charge of securing terrestrial samples of the earth below the surface. Katrina Edwards of USC will be exploring the ocean's crust in the mid-Atlantic to obtain marine samples.

The collaboration between the continental and marine researchers on the project is a novel approach, according to Edwards.

“It’s like they have existed in parallel universes,” she said.

The samples the pair obtain will be analyzed by their team members.

Click to enlarge photo

Duane Moser, a microbial and molecular ecologist at the Desert Research Institute, takes water samples from a well in California near Death Valley in 2007. Moser is part of a team of researchers that just received a $6.6 million NASA grant to explore life underground. The site will be one of the main land-based places of interest for the new study.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech and collaborators around the world will be involved in culturing organisms found in the samples and analyzing how they obtain energy.

Organisms deep underground lack access to the energy provided by the sun, so they may utilize unique methods to obtain energy.

The research's emphasis on discovering life deep beneath the surface coalesces with NASA's search for life on other planets, Moser said.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute, which supports astrobiology research and fosters interdisciplinary partnerships, chose five proposals for funding from more than 41 applications.

"We are very interested in understanding all that we can about Earth's subsurface," Pilcher said.

Pilcher said there is a possibility that on a planet like Mars, life could be inhibited by surface conditions but may find a suitable environment beneath the subsurface.

“NASA’s increasingly recognizing that the best chances for life on Mars are probably in the subsurface,” Moser said.

Pilcher emphasized that understanding how life survives underground and if it exists on other planets has long been a topic of human fascination.

“The questions that astrobiology asks are questions that human beings have asked probably since there were human beings,” he said.

The project means Moser will return to a different kind of office — one in Death Valley and at other sites with access to the subsurface. In Death Valley, a team will use existing boreholes in its exploration. At another location in South Dakota, team members will work in an underground lab that used to be a mine, where they’ll try to drill new boreholes.

Moser said he is used to working in nature. In his days as a postdoctoral student at Princeton, he spent 2 1/2 years exploring South African gold mines over a six-year period. He's traveled to Antarctica and has done research in Death Valley and its surrounding areas.

“Ever since I was a teenager, I did a lot of cave exploring,” he said.

Moser’s research is as varied as the destinations to which he’s traveled. He’s examined how microorganisms degrade polyacrylamide, a proposed sealant for canals and reservoirs. His work in South Africa helped to reveal a unique ecosystem populated by only a single species. His adviser, Tullis Onstott, was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine in 2007 based upon Onstott’s work on that project.

“You have these eureka moments when you’re the first person to understand this,” Moser said of the South Africa project.

He’s quick to point out that he’s not the team leader or the focus of the Life Underground project.

“I’m arranging access to these places,” he said.

But, Moser said, he’s pretty excited.

“We’re literally pushing the limits of our understanding of where life can exist,” he said.

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