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NASA Mars rovers should look to 'pasta' rocks for signs of life

Scientists suggest NASA's Red Planet rovers ought to seek out formations that resemble fettuccine.

Sulfuri thrives in the tough environment of this spring system at Yellowstone.
Bruce Fouke

Hungry for knowledge, researchers went to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and dipped sterilized pasta forks into the water to collect strands of bacteria. What they found might help point NASA's Mars rovers toward signs of life on the distant planet.

A team led by University of Illinois geologist Bruce Fouke is studying a bacterium with a mouthful of a name: "Sulfurihydrogenibium yellowstonense." They call it "Sulfuri" for short and it's tough stuff. The team published a study on Sulfuri in the journal Astrobiology.

The bacterium's lineage traces back about 2.35 billion years. "It can withstand exposure to ultraviolet light and survives only in environments with extremely low oxygen levels, using sulfur and carbon dioxide as energy sources," the university said on Wednesday. That makes it a candidate for surviving in the harsh environments of other planets. 

Sulfuri bacteria hang onto each other in water, forming into strands that look like something you'd find on a plate at an Italian restaurant. The bacteria aids in the formation of travertine rocks with a distinctive wavy look and filament-like texture. 

Mars rovers should keep an eye out for rock formations that look like this.

Bruce Fouke

"This should be an easy form of fossilized life for a rover to detect on other planets," said Fouke, who described such formations as "a fingerprint of life" that could provide evidence of alien microbes from Mars' past. 

NASA doesn't need to be convinced to keep an eye out for pasta-like rock formations. Its rover teams have a long history of checking out interesting-looking rocks. If NASA ever spots fettuccine or capellini on Mars, you can bet the rover will go in for a closer look. 

Of course, first NASA would have to find rocks that match this profile. The Curiosity rover is currently rolling around a clay-rich area near Mount Sharp. The Opportunity rover is now defunct, but NASA is scheduled to launch the Mars 2020 rover next year to give us a new set of eyes on the Mars ground. Let's hope it spots some pasta.