seal  Purdue News

January 12, 2004

Two Purdue University experts can discuss the search for life on Mars.


1. Earth's 'extreme organisms' make life on Mars seem possible

2. Water on Mars matters to scientists – but what about to Martians?


Earth's 'extreme organisms' make life on Mars seem possible

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Even if NASA's twin rovers find water lurking somewhere near their landing sites on Mars, the local environment will still appear rather inhospitable to life as we know it: low oxygen, temperatures colder than Antarctica and a thin atmosphere that blocks little of the sun's punishing radiation. Could an organism somehow thrive under such harsh conditions?

"It's not impossible, strange as it may sound," says Allan Konopka, a Purdue University biology professor. "Some life here on Earth tolerates conditions that would make the Martian surface seem mild by comparison."

Konopka is talking about so-called "extremophiles," a term applied to a number of our own planet's microbial life forms that survive where survival seems impossible – swimming in acid baths, for example, or encased in rocks thousands of feet underground. Many extremophiles have only been discovered in the last decade or two.

"These tiny creatures are challenging our theories about what life needs to exist," Konopka says. "The NASA rovers may find only scarce quantities of what a terrestrial organism would need to survive, but life on Earth has proven to be quite adaptable to unusual conditions. Mars appears to be a frozen desert – but we have more extreme environments here on Earth, too, and organisms that call them home."

Konopka can discuss extremophiles and issues related to the search for life on Mars.

CONTACT: Konopka, (765) 494-8152,


Water on Mars matters to scientists – but what about to Martians?

Our ideas about what living things need, including what they drink, are based primarily on what we know about the creatures on just one planet – our own. So while NASA has dispatched two rovers to Mars to determine how much water exists near the planet's surface, an unanswered question is: does Martian life, if it exists, need it in the first place?

"Life on Earth requires water," says Michael Lipschutz, professor of chemistry in Purdue University's School of Science. "But we don't know what forms extraterrestrial life may take, and we must be prepared for the possibility that it has very different needs than life does here."

Lipschutz has long been concerned with space exploration and even has an asteroid named after him. While he said he was excited about the first rover's successful landing, he cautions that the data it returns will probably not answer any final questions about life on Mars.

"These rovers do not have any equipment for detecting life directly," he says. "However, a clearer idea of the quantity of water present on Mars will likely impact future theories about whether the red planet ever did, or could, harbor biological life as we know it."

Lipschutz can comment on the missions of the Mars rovers and related issues, including theories about microbes traveling between planets on meteorites and the history of Mars probes.

CONTACT: Lipschutz, (765) 494-5326,


Writer: Chad Boutin, (765) 494-2081,