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The award winning student newspaper of Lake Oswego High School

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The award winning student newspaper of Lake Oswego High School

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LOHS teacher invites guest speakers to explore the stars

In February, LOHS science teacher Susan Wentzien hosted guest speakers Carl Synder and Hart Monyatovsky during a support seminar, where they introduced their studies on microbes. Them and a team of other scientists have been studying these organisms in hopes they will someday be able to find them in space. Their hope is that organisms, such as microbes, are on other planets. They think the planets with oceans and bodies of water are more likely to house living things. Around 2030 the hope is to send one of the microscopes they use for examining microbes up to space. But first the team is focusing on researching microbial life on earth, because the more known about ones on earth hopefully they can then be easily identified in space. 

There are several ways to look for life; Synder’s team primarily uses microscopy. Other methods include spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, DNA/RNA sequencing or electrochemistry. Microscopy is the use of microscopes to examine life that isn’t able to be viewed by the eye. Snyder’s team uses a special microscope to see microbes. 

This microscope is called a digital holographic microscope. This works by the first three planes (controls the beam of light and focuses image in a microscope) which works on identifying molecules’ biosignatures, electrical signals, structures and motion. Synder said this about the microscope, “The digital holographic microscope’s (DHM’s) characteristics that make it an ideal for looking for microbial life in space are it’s ability to view large volumes of sample while also being able to resolve small single celled organisms.” Synder also mentioned how the microscope has no moving parts, durable, and does well with vibration and acceleration forces that might go on while in a rocket ship. 

When looking through the lenses of a microscope, you may pan throughout different planes, so that’s why the image may look a bit blurry. Also, when looking at the image it will appear in black and white. One difference between our science class microscope and theirs is the lights used in the microscopes. A regular one in your science class has white light but with a digital holographic microscope uses a laser.

Synder and Monyatovsky’s team has been working hard to identify microbes everywhere. When looking for them they are looking for specific characteristics. Synder said, “we are looking for morphology and motility that indicate life. Morphology is the shape and structure of the organisms. Motility is the active motion (or swimming) of the microbes.The search could take  places like Mount St. Helens to the water puddles in the parking lot. The team explores extreme environments in hopes it would be similar to conditions in space. Synder mentioned, “we can study to what microbial life on another world might be like this helps build evidence for how to look for life on possible future life detection missions to other worlds.”So an example is some microbes were found in frozen water areas like Mount St. Helens, there’s a high chance these planets with frozen oceans would have microbes as well. The exact planets that are most likely to host microbes are Enceladus and Europa. Both of these planets have a frozen ocean but liquid underneath the frozen surface, possibly with some living organisms. 

When studying microbes out in the world the scientists like to gather samples of water. Sometimes they also bring the microscopes with them to examine the specimens on site. Or they just get samples and bring it back to the lab to test later. Scientists test microbes in a variety of tests. For example, using stimuli like a light to see how they react. Recently they used electrodes to see how they would react to that. They found that organisms’ mobility increased and they began to swim faster. Synder talked about whats to come with testing microbes. “A possible future next step is altering the design of the electrode system to be taken out into the field and see if we can stimulate samples in the field.”

This experiment is still continuing and there’s still more to learn. Hopefully with the more research scientists complete about living organisms, the easier it will be to track them in space. Synder said “the idea of finding life is inspiring and exciting.” He also talked about how much he has learned with his experiences with microscopes. “One of my favorite things I’ve learned about microscopes is that there are many different types of microscopes. Many microscopes use light but some use electrons to probe samples at a much higher resolution and can even visualize single atoms.”Synder and Monyatovsky aren’t sure what the next step is in their journey of microbes. Synder said he will probably move on soon to studying something different but hopes he helped out whoever wants to study microbes next. “I think the only goal I have for my microbial research moving forward is that the work I have done helps future scientists understand microbial interactions with electrodes and possibly techniques similar to mine might be sent to space to look for microbial life in some future life detection mission.” They are now planning to focus on our solar system. Someday this research could be the root of finding extraterrestrial life.

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