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Hitchhiking Earth Germs Could Devastate Alien Worlds

Hitchhiking Earth Germs Could Devastate Alien Worlds

As H.G. Wells wrote in his classic novels "First Men In the Moon" and "War of the Worlds," earthly germs can be quite deadly to alien life forms. This very real problem in the colonization of Mars and potential first contact encounters has scientists scrambling for find new ways to contain Earth-born contagions. Researchers say that new techniques for sterilization have to be developed to ensure Earth microbes don’t decimate other worlds. But heat-intensive sterilization protocols that cleansed NASA's past Viking Mars landers may now be too powerful for today's sensitive spacecraft features.

If an Earth microbe had made it to Mars, in the case of Viking, the life-detecting craft would have been unable to tell if bacteria was native to the Red Planet or had originated on Earth. Life on other planets may have originated from the same amino acid building blocks as on Earth and if exploration craft contaminate a new world, it may be near impossible to ascertain which came first – the landers or native life-forms. Viking’s findings have been hotly debated for decades despite its broiling sterilization protocols.

An invasive species, like the common cold of the moon explorer in the H.G. Wells novel, could wipe a planet clean literally overnight. In an unknown environment, Earth-born germs could adapt, mutate, and make the new planet equally as deadly to humans. "Things have changed," Penelope Boston, co-founder of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in New Mexico told the Astrobiology Science Conference in Chicago. "Now we have materials and electronics not meant to be cleaned in the way we need for planetary protection." Boston wants newer technology implemented, including planetary protection-compatible materials and high-tech electronics. Scientists are looking at other aspects of microbiology containment and high-temperature practices used in the oil industry.

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