Finding Life and Dark Matter in Nevada'' s Hot Springs

It’s one of the greatest questions of mankind. Are we alone in deep space?

To help us find an answer, UNLV Life Sciences teacher and researcher Brian Hedlund will be studying bacteria and archaea, both single-celled bacteria, found in a hot spring in northern Nevada.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration just recently awarded Hedlund and partners at California State University – San Bernardino, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Stanford University, a $900,000 grant to study bacteria and archaea discovered in Great Boiling Spring, situated about 100 miles northeast of Reno, in Gerlach.

“This spring has deep lineages of life that have never been studied in the past,” Hedlund said. “The technology is now readily available to allow us to acquire insights into the biology of these organisms, which will help supply insight into the early diversity of life in the world.”

Hedlund discussed that the warm spring resembles the high-temperature geothermal location where life might have first formed on our world. And brand-new technology is permitting scientists to check hypotheses on the organisms’ catabolic and anabolic potential, acting on genomics work supported by a previous NASA grant. The work might also offer insights into molecular adaptations to life in extreme environments and the early diversity of life.

“We understand this hot spring has deep family trees of life that have never been studied in the past,” Hedlund stated. “We’re mapping out life in the world in a habitat similar to what’s been found on other worlds.”

To this day, the “microbial dark matter” Hedlund is studying cannot be grown in a lab, so it is very important to study them where they are plentiful, such as Fantastic Boiling Spring. A lot of bacteria and archaea are about one micron long. Simply puts 1,000 organisms span the head of a pin.

“We understand a little about half the animals on our own world and generally nothing about the other half,” Hedlund said. “Our company believe that comprehending all life on Earth will permit us to comprehend if life can exist elsewhere.”

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