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Sol Journal – November 14th

November 14, 2016

The colonies living under rock

The theory of relativity surrounds us. Sometimes we can encounter it at unusual places. The colonies of biological organism living at the rock – can be humans or hypoliths. Yes, we are a colony living on the big rock called Earth! We assumed we know who are the humans, but what are the hypoliths? Do we have more similarities than differences? Can I even compare them and us?

Hypoliths are a photosynthetic organisms that lives underneath translucent rocks in climatically extreme places, such as Arctic, Antarctic, Atacama, Namib deserts and here, just outside our station. Why underneath the rocks? Since hypolith is mostly dominated by cyanobacteria, this is the way for these organisms to survive even in extreme environment. We have cyanobacteria living in the sea, forests, mild terrain zones and why not inhabit also cold and hot deserts? Natural selection and adaptation transformed cyanobacteria into new type the “hypolith”, which won the race between other bacteria in surviving at those areas. They found the smart way of comfortable living – the shelter! Rock protects hypoliths from harsh ultraviolet radiation, wind and extreme temperatures. The rocks are generally translucent which allow hypoliths to receive light and moisture from the soil underside. Here is another similarity to us – the adaptation, which requires some level of intelligence. We are also in some way intelligent in surviving, but in another way dumb in slowly destroying the “rock” that protects us. Maybe those microorganisms can teach us a good lesson?!

How to find hypoliths? First, look for a gravel area. Second, find quartz in the gravel area. Third, turn over each quartz stone and check for green color beneath or in the cracks. If you see greenish colored patch, it is they – the breed of hypoliths.

Here at Mars Desert Research Station crew microbiologist Anushree Srivastava works on the hypolith research project. As I was assigned to be cross trained in science field research and laboratory work, I participated in many “hypolith EVA’s”. We choose the experimental site with the gravel, identify the quartz rocks and record the hypolith abundance data.

Why we are doing it here? Utah desert similar to Mars not only by its red color. Even though Mars is more hostile to life than where we live now, there is a big possibility to find microorganisms living underneath the Martian rocks. Hypoliths will help humans to understand how to investigate microbial responses to environmental stressors.

Without noticing, we have already taken the example from hypolith colonies of surviving in extreme places. One of the proposed idea for human colony on Mars is to live under the ground or cover the habitat with 5 meters of Martian soil, which will protect from radiation. Therefore, humans will live “underneath the rock” just like hypoliths do!