The multi-disciplinary Pavilion Lake project funded by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency is aimed at studying exploration while examining unusual life forms.

Pavilion Lake Project

CEOE's Biddle part of international team studying microbes in high-altitude lake


1:49 p.m., Aug. 25, 2014--As a microbiologist who has been studying microorganisms for many years, the University of Delaware’s Jennifer Biddle is an enthusiastic member of a research team that is studying the extreme environment of a deep, cold, high-altitude lake in Canada to learn more about the origins and development of life on Earth.

The Pavilion Lake Research Project is a multi-disciplinary effort led by Darlene Lim, a geobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center, to explore a unique environment that could potentially answer some very important questions in the scientific community and also help plan the next extraterrestrial space mission.

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The project – funded by NASA and previously by the Canadian Space Agency (CAS) -- focuses on Pavilion Lake, located in Marble Canyon in British Columbia, a body of water that presents a great opportunity to study extremophiles, or organisms that thrive in extreme environments, which is the hook for Biddle, assistant professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

The organisms that are the focus of the research are living microbialites. Microbialites are rocks made by photosynthetic, colonial organisms that help make calcium carbonate, creating rock-like structures wherever they grow.

Microbialites were very common millions of years ago. However, now they are much less common, and microbialite mats only exist in areas where the water chemistry is exactly right.

“This is how we think life was on early Earth, and it’s immediately interesting for science because Earth used to be covered in these things, and now it’s not,” Biddle said. “So the big question is why was it covered in this before and now its not? What restricts their growth today?”

Biddle said she believes that the microbialites could tell us about the origins of life on Earth, as well as giving insight into the evolution of photosynthetic organisms. 

Pavilion Lake is well stocked with fish and other macrofauna as well, which allows scientists to examine how microbialites and other organisms may have interacted over millions of years.

In order to answer these questions, a team of scientists has gone up to Pavilion Lake every year since the microbialites were discovered back in the mid-1990s. The scientists have expertise in subjects ranging from microbiology to geology, and they use their collective knowledge to analyze the data coming out of the lake.

However, given that the lake is a difficult place to explore and sample, there needed to be a method for safely allowing sampling to occur. Luckily, NASA and CSA funded the opportunity to run an analog mission in the lake. 

This means that the scientists with the space agencies would test their equipment and communication methods in the lake in order to determine how effective they were. The successfully tested equipment and communication methods could then be adapted and used in space exploration missions.

As a microbiologist, and without the proper diving certifications required, Biddle would not take part in the actual descent into the lake. Biddle, along with other scientists, were placed in an operations booth on the shores of the lake, where they could monitor the sampling occurring at the lake through various forms of communications. 

Other members of the Pavilion Lake Project team piloted remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) through the lake, with the objective of mapping the bottom, finding areas where the microbialites were prevalent, and taking video and photographs of the organisms, while divers would go to specified points in the lake dictated by this footage to collect samples to be analyzed by the scientists on shore.

In the early years of the project, the focus was much more on the technological side of the research. While the people going out in the field were collecting information about microbialites, the focus was centered on preparing people and equipment for operations in space. 

The idea was to train both explorers and an operations team for sending individuals out into space and preparing them for life support restrictions. This training would then be applied to potential missions to other planets and asteroids.

However, in the past few years, the focus has turned more towards the science of the lake. As more and more information was pulled from the lake, the organizers of the project realized it would be helpful to have a “science backroom team,” as Biddle calls it. 

“We’ve realized if they can pipe information back, it’s more valuable if many eyes are able to see it at once, and not just that one person out in the sub,” Biddle said.

The backroom team examines photo and video transmitted from the submarine in real time, and uses the footage to determine where to send divers to sample, which makes the sampling process extremely efficient. On site, the scientists examine the samples for their structure and distribution of the microbialite mats, and they use Pulse Amplitude Modulated (PAM) fluorometry to examine what type of photosynthesis the organisms in the samples are doing. 

After the field season is over, Biddle then takes a portion of the samples back to her lab in Delaware. There, she examines their form, function, and genome to determine exactly what organisms are present. 

So far, Biddle and her lab have found that there are many different types of single-celled organisms in these microbial mats with many different functions in the community. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, both scientifically and for the communications and exploration side.

“One of the things that’s really amazing is that no matter how much we go up to this lake and how much we know about it, we keep having more questions,” Biddle said.

The project currently has no projected end date and will run as long as funding allows.

For more information, visit the Pavilion Lake Research Project website.

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