Nicolette Thomas (photo by Claudia Hagan/UH Hilo Stories)

Intrigued by the quest to discover life on Mars, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo student researcher Nicolette Thomas has come up with a way to set parameters when looking for signs of microbial populations. In her work, she’s testing lava from different areas of Hawaiʻi Island for DNA.

Thomas is a junior double majoring in astronomy/astrophysics and biology while conducting research as a fellow with the NASA Space Grant Consortium. Her mentor is John Hamilton, an instructor with the physics and astronomy department at UH Hilo since 2003.

After a summer internship with Hamilton at the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PICSES), Thomas became inspired by the BASALT grant and wrote a research proposal, which she presented to The Space Grant Consortium.

“She is doing graduate student work as an undergraduate,” said Hamilton.

Thomas is interested in the Red Planet and says, “I want to look at places on Earth that are similar to Mars, and Hawaiʻi is the one that I work with because it’s chemically identical to Mars.”

Because of this similarity, Hawaiʻi is considered a top analog site for Mars research. Thomas explains that the Hawaiian lava is made up of the same components as the Mars regolith (layer of rocky material) and it is on the regolith that researchers can look for biosignatures and environmental alterations. The existence of either of those things could signal the presence of life, or also the past existence of it.

Nicolette Thomas working in the lab. (photo by Claudia Hagan/UH Hilo Stories)

Recent Pāhoa lava flow may provide clues about search for life on Mars

The recent Pāhoa lava flow presented an opportunity for Thomas who, with Hamilton’s knowledge, was able to gain access to and take samples of basalt. She then analyzed them in a lab using DNA extraction and polymerase chain reaction, which is used to amplify trace amounts of DNA and in some instances RNA. These traces can later be sequenced to determine the identity of the source.

In her research, Thomas is looking at pioneer species of organisms that first arrive on lava flows, and then is using those findings to set an upper limit on biomass expectations for scientists searching for life on Mars.

Thomas would like to conduct DNA sequencing next. “It’s interesting to find out what [the source of the DNA] is, and you can get rid of the things that are probably contamination,” she says. “Then you can constrain the limits even more.”

The sequencing would help Thomas set the best parameters allowing for identification of microbes and archaea, which include different forms of extremophiles (a type of life that survives in radically severe conditions) that some scientists expect might be found on Mars.

For more on Thomas read the full article at UH Hilo Stories.

A UH Hilo Stories article by Lara Hughes, a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor