September 16, 2019 | 62° F

2 upcoming Byrne seminars at Rutgers cover possibilities of life on Mars

Photo by NASA |

 Curiosity is a car-sized rover launched as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission to explore the surface of the red planet. The rover has identified traces of methane in the atmosphere, a gas usually produced by living things. 

While the stereotypical green men may not be what inhabits Mars, two Rutgers professors will be teaching Byrne seminars on the prospects of life on the planet. 

Katherine Dawson, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, will be teaching a Byrne seminar called Life on Earth, Mars and Beyond this upcoming spring semester, which aims to cover how life on Mars could be possible. Her colleague Max Häggblom, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, will be instructing a different Byrne seminar, Is There Life on Mars?, with a similar objective. 

For both professors, this spring will be the first time their seminars are offered. Häggblom said that he wanted to teach the course because of the favorable conditions Mars and some moons in the solar system possess for hosting life. 

Dawson had a similar response. She said that she hopes to get students interested in the work and research she does regarding microbes, or microorganisms, that may be able to survive in the harsh environment of Mars. 

She said she is hoping to find some gems in the freshman class, so she can start having them do some work, potentially in the summer or fall. 

Both Dawson and Häggblom research microbe samples on Earth to infer what might be happening on Mars. Häggblom said that by studying how microbes survive on Earth, scientists can understand how liquid water, carbon, nutrients and suitable environmental conditions work elsewhere. 

Haggblom said key ingredients for life are needed for the study, including nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus and others. Liquid water is particularly important because it is required for life and can contain signatures of past or present water.

Dawson offered two possibilities for life on Mars — either the organisms are still alive, or they were alive at one point, but not anymore. In the first case, samples of DNA would be taken back to Earth so that the organism’s genes could be analyzed. In the second scenario, scientists would look for chemical indicators that show how life survived, an example being carbon dioxide. 

“For instance, when we eat an apple and then breathe out carbon dioxide, there is a little bit of an imprint of the apple on the carbon dioxide that we breathe out,” Dawson said. 

Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover, has also discovered signs of life while exploring the planet. Curiosity identified traces of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, which is mostly produced by living things.  

Dawson said she and her colleagues hope the course will also teach students about making sound scientific arguments that can be applied to real-world issues, in addition to the study of life on Mars. 

Häggblom's course will similarly provide students with a scientific foundation to follow discoveries not only from Mars, but also from other places of the solar system.

“This is an exciting time of exploration, both on Mars and other planets, moons and our own Earth. If there is life on places other than Earth, it will probably be discovered in your lifetime,” he said.

Elizabeth Kilpatrick

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