For as long as people have gazed at the night sky, they have wondered
if neighboring planets could be populated by living things. In fact,
recent explorations of our solar system have relayed several enticing
hints that the life-supporting conditions on Earth may not be so unique.

Evidence for water and organic compounds on Mars and Europa has
astrobiologists seriously pursuing the possibility that primitive life
once existed on other planets and moons. As they gear up for the real
acid test — collecting samples from these distant bodies to examine
them directly for evidence of life — they are tackling nothing less
profound than the origins of life in the universe.

But this pursuit is nagged by an uncertainty: We have never seen our
extraterrestrial cousins before. How will we recognize them if we meet
face to face? Peter Buseck and Martha McCartney, new members of ASU’s
arm of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, are among many scientists who
predict the best clues are to be found in lowly bacteria.

Buseck, Regents Professor of geological sciences and professor of
chemistry and biochemistry at ASU, and McCartney, a research scientist
at ASU’s Center for Solid State Science, were recently funded by NASA
to help develop reliable criteria for identifying traces of life, or
“biomarkers,” for use during future astrobiology missions.

Study of organisms from Earth, Buseck and McCartney argue, is the
most promising way to start. After all, Earthly life is the only
life we know, making it our one reference point in judging whether
extraterrestrial life exists. Therefore, Buseck reasons, “if you find
something in extraterrestrial samples that resembles life on Earth
then it’s reasonable to think that you have found traces of life” on
other planets.

Because astrobiologists expect extraterrestrial life, if it exists,
to be simple, terrestrial bacteria are getting top billing as model
Martians. Bacteria are single-celled organisms, among the most
primitive life forms on Earth. But the hunt for ancient bacteria
presents some special challenges. Bacteria, all soft parts and no
bones, do not usually leave any traces in the rock record, making
their presence hard to prove. To unequivocally demonstrate that
bacteria were ever present, Buseck stresses that “you need some sort
of biomarker, some sort of remainder.” Preferably, that biomarker
should be a durable material, such as a mineral, that can survive
for billions of years.

Just such a long-lasting biomarker may have already been found —
in a NASA scientist team’s 1996 claim of fossil bacteria in a 4.5
billion-year-old Martian meteorite, perhaps the most stunning evidence
to date of extraterrestrial life. Not surprisingly, the claim continues
to spark heated controversy. Buseck and McCartney aim to moderate the
debate by putting the Martian life hypothesis to a very thorough test.

The group of scientists originally studying the now-renowned
meteorite — known as ALH84001 — presented a slew of findings,
including organic chemicals and “bacterium-shaped objects,” that
collectively cried “life.” Since then, intense scrutiny by other
researchers has shown that most of that evidence could have resulted
from non-biological processes or artifacts introduced during study of
the meteorite.

Only one of the original findings is still thought to be a unique
indicator of life: Crystals of an iron-based mineral called magnetite.
The crystals found in the meteorite are striking because magnetite
grains with similar size, purity, and structural perfection previously
have been seen only in bacteria found on Earth. According to the
NASA group’s report, no inorganic process could have produced the
meteoritic crystals. Only so-called “magnetotactic” bacteria, which
form the magnetite grains through a controlled process, can generate
these particular shapes.

Magnetotactic bacteria, common in aquatic and marine habitats, produce
and carry the magnetic crystals in a chain. The chain, which looks
like a faux backbone under a microscope, acts like a compass as the
bacterium swims along Earth’s magnetic field lines.

These crystals are at the center of Buseck and McCartney’s planned
work. If bacterial synthesis is the single possible explanation for
the magnetite grains found in ALH84001, they could be the one clear
indication that life ever existed outside Earth. But, Buseck worries,
if no major holes have yet been punched in this argument, that may be
because it has not been examined closely enough.

And when Buseck says “closely,” he means it quite literally. “These
crystals are at the limit of what one can see, even with powerful
electron microscopes,” he says.

At 40 to 100 billionths of a meter wide, magnetite nanocrystals have
evaded clear three-dimensional imaging. That’s a problem for the
hypothesis of life on Mars, which now hinges on precise matching of
the complex shapes of the magnetite crystals from ALH84001 and from
magnetotactic bacteria.

“There are questions about how well we know the shapes of these tiny
crystals and how secure the identity is between those in the meteorites
and those in the bacteria,” says Buseck.

To be able to match the crystals from the two sources with confidence,
Buseck says astrobiologists must first fulfill four clear objectives.
“What we need to do is determine the shapes in the meteorites with
high accuracy, determine the shapes of the crystals in bacteria with
comparable accuracy, demonstrate their identity, and then somehow
determine that there are no other ways of forming such crystals. Then
we’d have a tight case.”

Of these four steps, Buseck and McCartney intend to test the first
three. They are studying the shapes, chemical composition, and magnetic
properties of both the meteoritic and bacterial magnetite grains in
unprecedented detail. New developments in transmission electron
microscopy, a technique in which samples are viewed with a beam of
electrons rather than a beam of light, have only recently made such
precise study of crystal shapes possible.

Using the recently improved techniques, the team will generate dozens
of two-dimensional images taken from different angles as well as
three-dimensional holograms of each magnetite grain. The resolution of
their images will be in the range of hundreds of trillionths of a meter.

In these efforts, Buseck and McCartney plan to continue ongoing
collaborations with fellow scientists Dennis Bazylinski (of Iowa State
University), Richard Frankel (of the California Polytechnic State
University), Rafal Dunin-Borkowski, (of Cambridge University, England),
and Mih·ly PÛsfai (of the University of VeszprÈm, Hungary).

Their work will provide improved data and criteria for use in
evaluating whether other magnetite grains, from meteorites or from
samples collected in outer space, have a biological origin. Of course,
ALH84001 will be the first Martian rock subjected to Buseck and
McCartney’s uncompromising analysis.