Scientists study Earth's earliest life forms in Nevada hot spring

By Brooks Hays  |  Nov. 29, 2017 at 12:37 PM
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Nov. 29 (UPI) -- Scientists are looking to a Nevada hot spring for insights into what life was like on early Earth.

The bacteria and archaea living in Nevada's Great Boiling Spring are some of the most ancient single-celled organisms on the planet. By studying these extremophiles -- organisms that survive extreme conditions -- researchers hope to ascertain the chances of finding alien life in other extreme environments.

"The organisms we're looking at may be evolutionary relics of ancient lineages in which most members have become extinct and may be unique repositories for primitive traits," Jennifer Pett-Ridge, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said in a news release. "What we know to date is that these extreme environments are very similar to what's been found on other planets."

Pett-Ridge is the principal investigator on a NASA-sponsored project to study analogies to alien life. The research effort involves scientists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; California State University, San Bernardino; and Stanford University.

The ancient bacteria and archaea living in Great Boiling Spring -- specifically Calescamantes, Fervidibacteria and Kryptonia -- can't be grown in a lab, so scientists have to study the extremophiles in their native habitat.

Researchers are deploying sophisticated technology to study the isotopic and elemental makeup of the spring's resident bacteria and archaea. Their findings could reveal the metabolic mechanisms that allow these organisms to survive such harsh conditions.

In addition to replicating what life might look like on an alien planet, the spring also offers a glimpse of what conditions were like on early Earth.

"These studies provide a lens though which we can view the phylogenetic and physiological diversity of life under ecologically simplified conditions bearing some similarity to habitats where life may have originated," Pett-Ridge said.

The ongoing research into Great Boiling Spring's inhabitants could help scientists understand how these simple organisms spawned more complex life forms during early evolution.

Research suggests early life was most likely formed in small ponds struck by meteors, and Great Boiling Spring may be Earth's closest approximation to such ancient aqueous environs.

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