In January the Mars Rover took its first steps to look for life on the Red Planet. At the same time researchers from Washington State University were looking for life at Soap Lake, located about 20 miles north of Interstate 90 in eastern Washington.

Some scientists believe Mars once was home to seas that have since dried up. As they dried, small pockets of salty water may have remained where life could have existed. Soap Lake harbors a similar environment, credited to ancient floods, and researchers are hoping studies of the area will offer clues to where life might exist on other planets.

“We’re trying to characterize the organisms in this environment,” said Brent Peyton, WSU associate professor of chemical engineering. “We’re figuring out what they’re living on, where their energy comes from and how it is that they survive there.”

The water at Soap Lake is five times saltier than the ocean, with naturally occurring, high concentrations of carbonate, chloride, sulfate and sulfide. Microscopic bacteria — called extremophiles — thrive in this harsh environment where most higher life forms would perish.

With an $840,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Peyton, Holly Pinkart of Central Washington University, and Melanie Mormile of the University of Missouri established an NSF Microbial Observatory to explore the lake’s natural extreme communities.

Satellite coverage

Data from Soap Lake also will be used to improve satellite-based searches for similar areas on other planets. This will be done in cooperation with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.

“The JPL will be sending a satellite over Soap Lake, taking spectral pictures of the landscape and trying to match them up with those of other planets,” said Peyton.

As the Mars Rover continues its exploration, NASA scientists have found what they were looking for — evidence the planet once was wet. The appearances of some rocks and soil, plus the detection of sulfates, is making the case for a watery history and, more important, an environment that could have been hospitable to life.

This discovery does not drastically change the course of the Soap Lake experiments. However, new findings may alter or tweak some components of the research.

“We are following what they (NASA) are finding and trying to adapt our studies to their results,” said Peyton. “It doesn’t really change the goals of our project.

“This does put more importance and application to our research — it’s a very exciting discovery,” he said.

Earthly goals

Peyton points out, however, that Soap Lake is not only a model for Mars; rather, it is an unusual geological area about which very little is known.

Some of the researchers’ earthly goals include using the bacteria — and the enzymes that allow them to persist under such harsh conditions — to enhance industrial processes and help meet national needs, including:

• Destruction of hazardous wastes such as explosives and nerve gas
• Decontamination of dirty bomb residue
• Understanding the production of natural gas containing methane hydrates
• Production of plastics from crops.

Eight years and counting

Peyton has been working at Soap Lake for about eight years. His and his colleagues’ NSF study is finishing its first year of a three-year project, he said. The recent Mars findings just make the work seem that much more important.

“This is a very exciting time, with a lot of implications,” he said. “However, just because Mars probably had water on it doesn’t mean we will significantly change our project. Our findings and data will contribute to a larger body of knowledge that is important on its own.”