Astrobiology in Wyoming

March 21 Presentation: Astrobiology in Wyoming (aka The search for extra-terrestrial life in Wyoming?)
Presented by Suki Smaglik, Agate Adventures, Lander, WY.  Video

Scientists have long believed that life on Earth originated in thermal aquatic environments early in our planet’s history and that the first organisms were likely to be microbial. Recent advances in our ability to sequence microbial genomes (DNA and proteins) help us uncover what extraterrestrial life might look like and under what conditions we might explore. Thermophiles are organisms that exist between 50°C – 80°C (122°F – 176°F), making them excellent targets for understanding life in extreme environments. Astrobiologists consider hot springs one of the best locations to look at life on early Earth, as analogs to extraterrestrial life.

Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis is 160 km SE of Yellowstone National Park. The hot springs emerge along an east-west fault in Mesozoic sedimentary rocks that flank the north side of the Owl Creek Mountains. While not as hot as Yellowstone springs, the hot springs in Thermopolis (~52°C) benefit from the additional heat in the mantle surrounding the Yellowstone hot spot. Microscopic (optical and electronic) morphology and genomic analysis reveal a diversity of microbes, some not previously recognized.

Characterization of the geochemical and microbial composition of these hot springs contribute to our knowledge of the regional diversity among the hot springs in and around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and may serve as modern homologs (a genetic relationship to common ancestral DNA sequence) of life on ancient Earth.