It could be said that Dr. Duane Moser's travels deep into African gold mines struck him a fortune of another kind.
Headway into the world of microbes.
"The work has been funded quite a lot by NASA," the microbial ecologist said. "It really is an attempt to define the lower depth limits for the terrestrial biosphere. We are looking basically at any point on the continental USA, how deep into the ground or the rock can we go before the life force becomes extinguishable."
His work in South Africa over the past two years has yielded some answers.
"It's going to vary from place to place," he said. "Temperature is probably a major feature that defines this. One-hundred-twenty-one degrees Celsius forms what we think of as a hard barrier for life as we know it not persisting below these depths."
That's about 303 degrees Fahrenheit. Moser will speak of his findings tonight in a free lecture at Western Nevada Community College.
During trips over the past two years, Moser and his colleagues sampled water and rock samples from gold, diamond and platinum mines, some up to two miles deep. Ambient rock temperatures at times reached about 65 degrees Celsius.
"That's about 150 degrees Fahrenheit," he said. "Kind of an extreme working environment."
Many of the microbes he studied revealed new DNA sequences.
"Most of what we found was unique," he said. "They were not closely related to anything we've seen before, which is one of the reasons we feel we're looking at indigenous subsurface life."
Moser's talk tonight will begin with what happens when water dries up on a planet.
"I start out with a discussion of the Southwest and how there used to be water here and how most of the lakes have long since dried out. I ask when the water on the surface is totally gone, what do you do next? The answer is to go into the subsurface."
Moser, who has worked for the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas since 2004, sees this as the answer to where life could potentially be found on Mars.
"As far as we know microbial ecology is the first and best way to study potential life in the solar system," he said. "The microbes are the first place you should look. The signatures of microbial life are easier to detect in the form of unusual chemistry."
He believes that if any other life found in this solar system, it would be microbial.
"I think the likelihood of sophisticated society in this solar system is very remote," he said. "But because there's also a limitless number of stars, you can do calculations that show it's an assurance that you will find intelligent life in the universe. It's probably a long distance from here."
n Contact reporter Maggie O'Neill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1219.
If you go
What: "Searching For Life Beneath the Earth," a talk by Dr. Duane Moser from the Desert Research Institute.
When: 7-8 tonight
Where: Room 103 of the Reynolds Center for Technology at WNCC Carson City, 2201 West College Parkway. Free and open to the public.
Information: Call 445-4253.