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NASA's astrobiology research sparks 'GreenTech' revolution
13 March 2012, By Ruth Marlaire
RoboAlgae sensor (above) will wirelessly transmit chemical and physical data to growers about the health, or stress of algae in water. Credit: Chris Beasley
NASA's astrobiologists study microbial life to understand how it transformed a rocky Earth into the thriving, diverse, life-sustaining planet we inhabit today. These studies of photosynthetic 'green' algae are creating sparks for new 'green technologies' on Earth and future human space exploration missions.
"Once we understand these microbial recycling pathways, we can apply these processes in imaginative and innovative ways to solve problems on Earth, and in various space microgravity environments," said Leslie Bebout, a research scientist in the Exobiology Branch at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Exobiology scientists at NASA Ames are conducting astrobiology research into the origin and early evolution of life, the potential of life to adapt to different environments, and the implications for life elsewhere. Goals of this research are to determine the nature of the most primitive organisms and the environments in which they evolved, and how those microbes and environments have changed over time to produce the world we have today.
These findings are helping scientists understand the transformations of Earth and its atmosphere throughout time. This requires an investigation of the evolution of genes, metabolic pathways, and microbial species, subject to long-term environmental change. Such an investigation will show the co-evolution of, and interactions within, microbial communities that drive the major recycling processes on Earth. These constantly flowing cycles of energy and elements are what make Earth unique, and are critical to the development of new technologies for sustainable energy, food and water processing.
"It may surprise people to learn that NASA's space science research has so many direct applications to the development of 'greentech.' Many of the organisms we study are important producers of hydrogen, methane and lipids that can be used as carbon neutral fuels, and other products," said Orlando Santos, chief of the Exobiology Branch at Ames.
Microbial ecology links this research together. By studying microbes in a given environment, scientists can observe how they thrive and interact with each other. It is important to note that microbial communities are profoundly influenced by their environment. By looking at geographic location, or a shift to short- or long-term environmental perturbations, scientists can determine how microbial populations and processes differ in response to different environments.
A few years ago, Ames Exobiology scientists formed the Algae for Exploration (ALEX) group, which studies various types of lipids produced by different algal species under specific conditions, and started applying this research to new technologies. They found that non-traditional species of algae can produce the lipids needed to produce low-cost fuels. To explore this notion and determine other NASA synergies, they met with many industry and research colleagues to discuss
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