DPS 34th Meeting, October 2002
Session 3. Mars Surface
Oral, Chair(s): N. Barlow and E.Z. Noe-Dobrea, Monday, October 7, 2002, 9:30-11:00am, Room M

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[3.09] Planetary Protection: Two Relevant Terrestrial Examples

C. Chyba (SETI Institute and Stanford University)

Concerns about potential pathogens in returned samples from Mars ("Mars Sample Return: Issues and Recommendations", National Research Council, 1997) or planetary satellites ("Evaluating the Biological Potential in Samples Returned from Planetary Satellites and Small Solar System Bodies", National Research Council, 1998) focus on two potential types of pathogenesis, toxic and infectious. The National Research Council reports cited above state that the chances of extraterrestrial organisms proving either toxic or infectious to humans are extremely low, but cannot be entirely ruled out. Here I discuss recently discovered terrestrial examples relevant to each possibility, in order to make these concerns concrete. The first example concerns the production of hepatotoxins (toxins affecting the liver) and neurotoxins by cyanobacteria in glacial lakes on alpine pastures in Switzerland. In this example, mat-forming benthic cyanobacteria are implicated in a hundred cattle poisonings that have been reported from alpine pasteurs in southeastern Switzerland over the past twenty-five years (e.g. K. Mez et al, Hydrobiologia 368, 1-15 (1998)). It is unlikely that these cyanobacteria evolved the toxins in response to dairy cows; rather the susceptibility of cattle to these toxins seems simply to be an unfortunate coincidence of a toxin working across a large evolutionary distance.

The second example concerns the recent demonstration that the decimation of shallow-water Caribbean elkhorn coral is due to infection by a common fecal enterobacterium associated with the human gut (K. L. Patterson et al., PNAS 99, 8725-8730 (2002)). The bacterium, Serratia marcenscens, is also a free-living microbe in water and soil, as well as an opportunistic pathogen in a variety of animal species. The distance between humans and corals emphasizes the possibility that certain organisms may prove pathogenic across a wide evolutionary divide.

Of course, in neither of these cases are the evolutionary distances crossed as large as those that would likely exist between any martian organisms and human beings. The possibility that life on the two worlds might share a common ancestor suggests that these distances may not be altogether incomparable, but this remains speculation pending further exploration. This work is supported in part by the NASA Exobiology Program and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 34, #3< br> © 2002. The American Astronomical Soceity.