Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Environmental Sample Processor
ESP in the Future

Taking ESP technology out of the sea

Detecting life on other planets

Searching for extraterrestrial life is one of NASA's main research goals for the 21st century. To move toward this goal, NASA created the ASTEP program (Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring the Planets) to identify and develop new instruments that can detect and monitor biological activity in extreme environments on Earth. From there, NASA hopes to develop instruments that can be used to detect life in outer space. The ESP has become a candidate for this future use.

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents certainly qualify as some of the most extreme environments on Earth. In such areas, superheated, corrosive, mineral-laden fluids mix with near-freezing seawater at extreme pressures. Yet life thrives in these environments. Similar conditions may also exist on other bodies within our solar system. For example, the surface of Europa (one of Jupiter's satellites), appears to be entirely submerged beneath an ice-covered sea. Some scientists have speculated that life could have evolved around active volcanoes or hydrothermal vents on the floor of this sea.

Artist rendition of a space probe on Jupiter's satellite, Europa.
NASA artists' rendition of a space probe on one of Jupiter's satellites, Europa. The probe first penetrates the icy surface, then descends through the liquid ocean underneath to explore volcanoes or hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. Such probes could one day carry instruments based on the ESP.
Image: NASA/JPL

MBARI's Chris Scholin received a $3 million grant from NASA to develop a version of the Deep ESP and install it at a hydrothermal vent on the Juan de Fuca ridge off the coast of Washington State. The ESP will monitor microbes in chemical-rich fluids flowing out of the seafloor. Scientists are particularly interested in finding out how the microbes population changes over time. Other instruments deployed at the same time, near the vents, would monitor earthquake activity and rates of fluid flow through seafloor rocks and sediments. The overall goal is to better understand relationships between biological and geological processes at the site. The ESP might also help determine if and how these sea-bottom microorganisms spread from one vent to another through surrounding ocean waters.

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) are also involved in the NSF grant. Caltech scientists are helping to develop genetic probes specific to cold seeps. JPL engineers are considering how elements of the ESP might be useful in looking for life on other planets. For example, the ESP could be combined with a module that would allow it to collect air, dust or ice samples and mix these into a liquid to be analyzed by the ESP.

Continued exploration on our own planet

Researchers at LLNL are developing additional modules that can expand ESP capacities. One proposed module would allow the ESP to detect not just a few individual genes but various combinations of hundreds of genes. This would allow scientists to study and perhaps identify organisms that perform specific biological processes, such as obtaining nutrition from methane or other chemicals seeping out of the seafloor.

Besides showing great promise as a tool for learning about life in the oceans, a different version of the ESP could also prove useful in industrial settings—perhaps monitoring microbes in sewage treatment plants.

Last updated: May. 26, 2010