Is there life on Mars? UH Hilo astrobiologist student researching island lava as an analog for the Red Planet

Nicolette Thomas is looking at pioneer species of organisms that first arrive on lava flows, and then is using those findings to set an upper limit on biomass expectations for scientists searching for life on Mars.

By Lara Hughes.

Nicolette Thomas
Nicolette Thomas

Intrigued by the quest to discover life on Mars, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo student researcher Nicolette Thomas has come up with a way to set parameters when looking for signs of microbial populations. In her work, she’s testing lava from different areas of Hawai‘i Island for DNA.

Thomas is a junior double majoring in astronomy/astrophysics and biology while conducting research as a fellow with the NASA Space Grant Consortium. Her mentor is John Hamilton, an instructor with the physics and astronomy department at UH Hilo since 2003.

Hamilton holds a master of science in astronomy from UH Mānoa and has been principle investigator on NASA grants, including a Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research grant working on Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT).

When Thomas was a child, her mother gave her a microscope and a telescope. It wasn’t long before the future scientist’s curiosity began moving her in the direction of astrobiology.

Thomas was born in California and graduated high school in Las Vegas before traveling abroad to South Korea for two years of studies. Her sights landed on UH Hilo and she moved to Hawai‘i Island in 2014.

After a summer internship with Hamilton at the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PICSES), Thomas became inspired by the BASALT grant and wrote a research proposal, which she presented to The Space Grant Consortium.

Thomas at work in the lab.
Thomas at work in the lab.

Hamilton says, “She is doing graduate student work as an undergraduate.”

Thomas is interested in “the Red Planet” and says, “I want to look at places on Earth that are similar to Mars, and Hawai‘i is the one that I work with because it’s chemically identical to Mars.”

Because of this similarity, Hawai‘i is considered a top analog site for Mars research. Thomas explains that the Hawaiian lava is made up of the same components as the Mars regolith (layer of rocky material), and it is on the regolith that researchers can look for biosignatures and environmental alterations.

The existence of either of those things could signal the presence of life, or also the past existence of it.

Field work

The recent Pāhoa lava flow presented an opportunity for Thomas who, with Hamilton’s knowledge, was able to gain access to and take samples of basalt. She then analyzed them in a lab using DNA extraction and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which is used to amplify trace amounts of DNA and in some instances RNA. These traces can later be sequenced to determine the identity of the source.

In her research, Thomas is looking at pioneer species of organisms that first arrive on lava flows, and then is using those findings to set an upper limit on biomass expectations for scientists searching for life on Mars.

Areas on Hawai‘i Island where sulfataras and fumaroles are present are also of particular interest to Thomas. She explains, “A sulfatara is a dead fumarole and a fumarole is a place where hot lava meets water [forming steam].”

Hamilton was able to secure a permit for Thomas to take samples in Volcanoes National Park, where she visited active steam vents that were located far from human contact.

Thomas says, “From my perspective, this is an old flow with active fumaroles, so this is a good analog for ancient Mars’s Noachian Era when we thought there was water there.”

Thomas uses the flow analysis from the Volcanoes National Park fumaroles as an analog for ancient Mars, which occurred about 4.1 billion years ago, and the analysis from the newer Pāhoa flow as an analog for today’s modern Mars.

What’s next?

DNA sequencing has yet to be performed, and Thomas would like to do that next.

“It’s interesting to find out what [the source of the DNA] is, and you can get rid of the things that are probably contamination,” she says. “Then you can constrain the limits even more.”

The sequencing would help Thomas set the best parameters allowing for identification of microbes and archaea, which include different forms of extremophiles (a type of life that survives in radically severe conditions) that some scientists expect might be found on Mars.

Hamilton has enjoyed working with Thomas and says, “Niki has a lot of independent drive. She’s been charting her course and I have been helping with midcourse directions and perhaps pointing out components that I can see from my perspective as an astronomer.”

Thomas is also grateful for all of the networking and avenues of collaboration that Hamilton has provided for her.

Hamilton adds, “Learning the value of networking broadens your experience and your ability. That’s what makes a great scientist, collaboration.”

Future projects include attending a Biosignature Preservation and Detection Conference in May at Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Thomas has also been in contact with NASA Presidential Rank Award winner and Senior Scientist Chris McKay at NASA Ames Research Center, and they are hoping that a summer internship in 2017 and graduate school will be on the horizon.

Related work

In a related project to the lava research, Thomas and Hamilton, who also is affiliated with the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) in Hilo, presented their work on selecting possible landing sites on Mars during the First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Oct. 29, 2015, in Houston, Texas.  The agency hosted the workshop to collect proposals for locations on Mars that would be of high scientific research value while also providing natural resources to enable human explorers to land, live and work safely on the Red Planet. Hamilton and Thomas were on the six- person Hawai‘i team at the workshop.

John Hamilton
John Hamilton of the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) speaks during the “First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars” held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Oct. 29, 2015, in Houston, Texas. Photo NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Video of Hamilton’s workshop presentation below:

 

About the author of this story: Lara Hughes (junior, business administration) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories