Friday, 15 June 2018 09:23

ANU says joint study may help progress living on Mars

The ANU team is using computer modelling to further understand the role played by red chlorophylls. The ANU team is using computer modelling to further understand the role played by red chlorophylls. ANU

An international study on cyanobacteria, one of the largest group of bacteria that have survived for more than 2.5 billion years on Earth, may help improve the prospects of making Mars a place which humans can colonise.

Scientists from the Australian National University took part in the study along with counterparts from research institutions in Italy, France and the UK to support London's Imperial College which played the lead role.

In a statement, the ANU said cyanobacteria were able to survive in inhospitable climes with little light; thus, studying them could help scientists better understand photosynthesis, the process which plants and other organisms use to make and store energy and produce oxygen.

ANU Emeritus Professor Elmars Krausz said cyanobacteria could be used to colonise Mars and other planets, where they would, presumably, produce oxygen and create a biosphere.

“This might sound like science fiction, but space agencies and private companies around the world are actively trying to turn this aspiration into reality in the not-too-distant future,” said Professor Krausz who is from the ANU Research School of Chemistry. He was a co-author on a paper detailing the work of the team which appeared in the journal Science.

“Photosynthesis could theoretically be harnessed with these types of organisms to create air for humans to breathe on Mars. Low-light adapted organisms, such as the cyanobacteria we’ve been studying, can grow under rocks and potentially survive the harsh conditions on the red planet,” he added.

anu mars

Jennifer Morton at work in the research lab.

The ANU said that some kinds of cyanobacteria would thrive in Antarctica and the Mojave Desert and even on the outside of the International Space Station.

Jennifer Morton, a doctoral scholar at the ANU Research School of Chemistry and a co-author of the paper, said: “Chlorophyll adapted to absorb visible light is very important in photosynthesis for most plants, but our research identifies the so-called ‘red’ chlorophylls as critical components in photosynthesis in low-light conditions."

She said a study of the red chlorophylls would also provide leads as to where one should look for life on other planets.

“Searching for the signature fluorescence from these pigments could help identify extra-terrestrial life,” she said.

A key discovery was identifying a significantly different mechanism of photosynthesis that enhanced the understanding of the process, more broadly, Morton said.

“This work redefines the minimum energy needed in light to drive photosynthesis. This type of photosynthesis may well be happening in your garden, under a rock.”

She said an organism that had adapted to low light would be killed by exposure to sunshine.

“All photosynthetic organisms, such as coral reefs, suffer severe environmental stresses from high temperatures, high light levels and ultraviolet light, so this research helps scientists to better understand these limits,” she said.

The ANU researchers used an optical spectrometer system to analyse the role of red chlorophylls in photosynthesis and are using computer modelling to further understand the role played by these chlorophylls.

Photos: courtesy ANU

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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