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Space Sciences [clear filter]
Thursday, October 18

3:45pm EDT

Life on Other Worlds
avatar for Karim Jaffer

Karim Jaffer

Student, John Abbott College
I have been at John Abbott College (JAC) since 2006 teaching a variety of Physics and Pathways courses, and began teaching the Introductory Astronomy course in 2016 - including the coordination of Astronomy observing activities, outreach, and all Astronomy-related projects in various... Read More →

Thursday October 18, 2018 3:45pm - 4:05pm EDT
Room CD Concordia Conference Center, MB Building 9th floor, 1450 Guy St, Montreal, QC H3H 0A1

4:05pm EDT

Searching for life in our solar system: development of the MICRO Life Detection Platform
Astrobiology is a major focus of space exploration. The search for life in our solar system is primarily focused on Mars, Europa and Enceladus, which are characterized by extremely cold temperatures. Current life detection instruments are focused on identification of habitable environments or detection of biosignatures, but not unambiguous signs of life. The overall goal of our research is the development of a small, portable, low cost, and low energy life detection platform known as the MICRO Life Detection Platform (MLDP) that could be incorporated into future astrobiology missions. Given that life in our solar system is very likely to be microbial in nature, the focus of this project is the testing and optimization of pre-existing, automated, and miniaturized robust instruments for the direct detection of extinct or extant microbial life. Our team is testing and optimizing four components of the MLDP: the Oxford Nanopore MinION, a Nucleic Acid Extraction Platform (NAEP), a Microbial Activity MicroAssay (MAMA), and the Cryo-iChip. Applying these instruments in a novel astrobiology context, they have been tested in two types of analogue sites: inverted paleochannels in the Utah desert and Canadian high Arctic cryoenvironments (e.g. permafrost and cold saline springs). The MinION, an ultra-small portable sequencer, can detect DNA, RNA, and proteins. Sequencing with the MinION has been performed on Utah paleochannel samples from diverse microbial habitats. Results have shown shifts in dominant bacterial phylum between high biomass and desiccated samples in addition to the detection of biogeochemical and astrobiology-significant compounds (perchlorate). We are currently testing multiple Extraction Platforms that can prepare biomolecules for MinION analysis. We have successfully used an automated NAEP system with high flight technology readiness for extraction and sequencing of cryoenvironment analogue samples. MAMA instruments are ideal for the detection and characterization of extant microbial communities. Wells inside the MAMA plates, incubated with a specific carbon source, will change colour in the presence of active microbes, thus demonstrating their metabolic activity. We are currently working to optimize the MAMA for high salinity, pH and perchlorate rich samples characteristic of Martian environments. Currently, a minimum of 4250 bacterial or 1225 yeast cells are required to detect metabolic activity, similar to Arctic analogue environments. The Cryo-iPlate is a novel culturing method used to isolate microorganisms from analogue sites. The isolates obtained are characterized for their adaptations, physiology and metabolism, all these provide insights into requirements for microbial life in extreme environments and identify potential biosignatures for astrobiology. Cryo-iPlates deployed in the Canadian high Arctic have to date lead to the isolation of hundreds of bacterial strains, among which four are putatively novel.


Olivia Blenner-Hassett

Graduate Student, McGill University

Catherine Maggiori

PhD Student, McGill University

Dr. Isabelle Raymond-Bouchard

Post Doctoral Fellow, McGill University
I am a postdoctoral fellow with the McGill Space Institute working in the laboratory of Dr. Lyle Whyte. Dr. Whyte’s research program focuses on examining microbial biodiversity and ecology in the Canadian high Arctic. These habitats include unique cold saline springs, permafrost... Read More →

David Touchette

M.Sc. student, McGill University

Thursday October 18, 2018 4:05pm - 4:25pm EDT
Room CD Concordia Conference Center, MB Building 9th floor, 1450 Guy St, Montreal, QC H3H 0A1

4:25pm EDT

Martian lava tubes as a microbial haven: Characterizing life in Earth analogs and developing a mission concept to explore them on Mars
Space agencies and private corporations around the world have made sending missions to Mars a key priority. One of the keys to such missions is finding an environment which would allow for ease of access while providing a compelling site to do science. Scientists have hypothesized that evidence for life on Mars, either as biosignatures (substance providing evidence for life) or extant life could be found in the Martian subsurface. This would be made possible by providing would-be Martian microbes a source of water in the form of ice, ample protection both from space-based radiation, and harsh temperature changes. Martian lava tubes are hypothesized to provide these protections while additionally providing an access point to the subsurface. To determine suitable landing sites for a mission to a Martian lava tube, imagery from the Hi-RISE database, provided by the University of Arizona was analysed. Regions selected for study included Tharsis Montes and Syrtis Major due to their hypothesized high density of lava tubes. Analysis of the images confirmed this hypothesis, as we found several sites with a high concentration of sinuous formations, which are usually indicative of these structures. Using this imagery, the presence of lava tubes and identification of entry-points to the subterranean structures was confirmed with the help of experts in Martian geology. Final selection of the landing site was determined by addressing engineering constraints surrounding spacecraft delivery. From these criteria, several possible sites were selected, ranging in location from Olympus Mons to Syrtis Major. However, before a mission to Martian lava tubes can occur these habitats need to be studied extensively in analog environments here on earth; to suggest how microbes could survive on Mars and identify biosignatures. For this we visited Lava Beds National Monument to collect ice samples from within the lava tubes. Advanced cultivation and molecular techniques were employed to determine the total biomass and functional/taxonomic diversity of the microbial communities. The microbial communities within the ice are cold adapted and taxonomically diverse with dominant phyla belonging to Actinobacteria (19 – 49%), Proteobacteria (25 – 32%), and Bacteroidetes (7 – 31%). Preliminary results have identified biochemical pathways within our samples for methanogenesis, sulfur metabolism, nitrogen fixation, and carbon fixation by the reductive citric acid pathway which suggest the community is made up in part by chemolithoautotrophs. Alternative forms of primary production such as these may help to sustain the community in such a limiting environment and are no doubt essential if life were to persist on Mars today where the concentration of organic nutrients is low. Through this research we hope to define future missions to Martian lava tubes and provide a basic understanding of microbial community dynamics within lava tube ice and how these communities interact with the surrounding geology, so we may better determine the habitability of this environment on Mars and propose biosignatures indicative of past life.

avatar for Chris


Organizer, McGill University
Second year McGill Engineering student participating in Martian Mission Planning/ Simulation Project funded by the Canadian Space Agency's and collaborating with NASA Ames Laboratory and SETI. I hope to one day work in the space industry and develop colonization and habitation technology... Read More →
avatar for Brady O'Connor

Brady O'Connor

Master's Student, McGill Space Institute/McGill University
I am a master's student at McGill University in Dr. Lyle Whyte's cryomicrobiology lab. My research focuses around astrobiology and characterizing the microbial community in lava tube ice as it's an analog environment to Mars and may help us understand if life ever did exist in Martian... Read More →

Thursday October 18, 2018 4:25pm - 4:45pm EDT
Room CD Concordia Conference Center, MB Building 9th floor, 1450 Guy St, Montreal, QC H3H 0A1