There was a time when every child’s dream was to grow up and join NASA to become an astronaut and explore space. Of course, today the interest in this sort of space exploration has dwindled and the hype around this organization has died down along with it. While NASA may not seem as prolific as it once was, it still engages in a wide variety of scientific research, some of it focused right here on earth. In fact, a recent NASA-funded research endeavor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) looked into some earth-dwelling bacteria that might redefine the concept of an “iron lung.”
Taking a hard look at some bacteria in their geoscience lab, professor Eric Roden pointing out that his latest discovery includes a group of bacteria that use iron in a way very similar to how we rely on oxygen. In most animals we are familiar with on earth, oxygen is reduced to produce water as we breath and soaks up electrons as we eat. Using a similar mechanism, these bacteria utilize iron as an electron acceptor. One of the biggest implications for researchers at UW-Madison is exploring the past of these bacteria as it is believed this form of life may not only have thrived on an early earth, but also could have served as the foundation of life as we know it today.
In addition to pointing towards early life on earth, researchers also believe it could be used to redefine how we search for life on other planets. Naturally, this news is one of the most interesting to NASA. Rather than just searching for oxygen-consuming organisms like we are more accustomed to here on earth, the existence of these “iron breathers” makes for an interesting new path to explore. Perhaps in those undeveloped planets, finding this type of bacteria is a more realistic expectation and could point to the development of more advanced life forms in the distant future.
Beyond the potential for learning more about early life on earth and finding new life on other planets, the reason these bacteria are so interesting to some is the fact they can be entirely sustained by a simple element like iron. In addition to just “breathing” this iron as an electron acceptor, many also use the output and break it down into energy—like they are eating food. Put in different terms, it would be like a human breathing in oxygen and then deriving energy as they exhale without having to eat any food. With this type of efficiency, they have captured the attention of the US Department of Energy, which is interested in turning this type of efficiency into a widely available energy source. Whether for practical energy purposes or just for intellectual curiosity, this makes research into these iron lunged bacteria a priority for many scientists and could have some serious implications in the future.