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Tullis Onstott has been focusing his research for the last 15 years on subsurface microbial life and its implications for life on Mars and the origin of life. This research involves exploration of subsurface microbial ecosystems via mines, drilling, and new underground laboratories, and quantifying its community structure, function, and activity with molecular, isotopic, and geochemical tools.
The principle focus of my research projects are the activity and survival of bacteria and other microorganisms in the deep subsurface (> 0.5 km) and their impact on the geochemistry and mineralogy of their environment. Among the questions we attempt to address are: 1) How do subsurface microorganisms evolve by adaptation or selection or horizontal gene transfer? 2) What constrains the diversity and density of microorganisms? 3) What role does radiation play as an energy source for life? 4) Could life have originated in the subsurface? 5) What methods can be adapted to test for life in the Martian subsurface?
These projects have been and continue to be field-based and require a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional approach. Field measurements, sample acquisition, laboratory analyses and publication of results by geochemists, microbiologists and molecular biologists have to be highly coordinated in order for the questions above to be addressed.
Currently we are involved in two field projects, the first situated in the Canadian Arctic and the second sited in the world’s deepest mines in South Africa. Both projects seek to address fundamental scientific question regarding bacteria/rock interactions while at the same time developing applications of this information that will benefit mankind. We are also involved with educational outreach efforts for the South African project focusing on previously disadvantaged, postgraduate students in South Africa and black American students in the U.S.