Origins of life studied under waters of Pavilion Lake 

Understanding microbialites may help NASA, CSA train for future space missions


Pavilion Lake is home to a mystery and NASA is here to solve it.

Sea monsters, you might ask? An alien space wreck, perhaps?

Unfortunately not.

NASA, along with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and researchers from a dozen universities across Canada and the US have been working at Pavilion Lake, between Lillooet and Cache Creek, to study rare microbialites - carbonate rock structures that may be formed by bacteria and other biological activity - 64 metres below the lake's surface.

The Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) is a multi-disciplinary, international project involving over 80 people studying the nature of the rock structures and the bacteria that may have formed them.

Researchers use the term "may" because microbialites in other parts of the world typically exist in very extreme saltwater conditions, where only bacteria can grow. Pavilion Lake, with its fresh water fish, swimming tourists and houses peppering the shoreline, is a fairly typical lake. It opens up the possibility that there may be other processes involved in creating these structures.

"It's kind of a chicken and the egg type of thing," said Allyson Brady, acting primary investigator on the project. "Did the rock make the bacteria or did the bacteria make the rock?"

Fossilized microbialites are some of the oldest remnants of life on Earth. Microbialites were common for about two billion years of earth's early history.

The structures in Pavilion Lake and nearby Kelly Lake are very modern in geological terms - between 10,000 and 11,000 years old - so by studying how they form, researchers can paint a picture of how the Earth may have developed in that quiet and uneventful period between 2.5 billion years ago and right now.

"If we find fossilized remnants of similar structures on earth, billions of years old, how can you prove that they were formed by bacteria? And thus, be able to answer questions about the origins of life on Earth," Brady said.

She said these questions are difficult to answer with mere fossils. In a "modern system" (not fossilized), researchers are sampling the bacteria and the water chemistry that make up this unique rock structure, which helps paint a more detailed portrait of what the Earth's landscape looked like billions of years ago and what the types of bacteria were that helped create the world we live in today.

"This lets you interpret origins of life and questions about Earth," Brady said. "It also gives you tools if you want to, say, look for evidence of life somewhere else in the universe - Mars, asteroids - you need some starting point.

"You can't just go there and say, 'Ah! I'm going to look for life.' Well, how do you do that? This gives some basis on how you'd go about searching for life elsewhere in the universe."

NASA and the CSA are involved in this project - and have provided much of the funding for the PLRP since its inception in 2004 - to use the lake and the procedures involved with the PLRP as an analogue site for planning a space mission. Astronauts have been involved, not only for their expertise in studying foreign environments, but also to train for future space exploration missions. The PLRP has even started up an astronaut-training program to give them some field experience.

"Going out and being involved in a field science program is very different than sitting in a classroom and having somebody tell you what to do," Brady said.

The CSA has a program called the Canadian Analogue Research Network, which sponsors research at analogue sites across Canada. The scientific focus of these sites varies but the CSA could use the research to train for future exploratory missions.

Using deepwater submersibles equipped with high definition video cameras, researchers scan the bottom of the freezing, 5.7-km-long by one-kilometre-wide lake, sweeping past organic sedimentary structures shaped like cauliflower and artichokes sprouting from the surface in an underwater garden space.

Personnel involved with the project include geologists, astronauts, physicists and engineers studying the unique seascape formed by glacier activity over 10 millennia ago.

"Are we going to find little microbes with hammers building these structures? No," Brady said with a laugh. "But any of this type of research that can contribute to our understanding of how bacteria can operate... definitely contributes to a much larger body of knowledge," Brady said.

The team works for about two weeks every summer and they often hosts open houses for visitors to come check out the gear and meet the astronauts, although they finished up this year's research on July 9.



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