What’s in your water heater? NASA wants to know!

By August 12th, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Comment

Hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. (Courtesy photo)

Hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. (Courtesy photo)

Researchers at Penn State University need your help to study the distribution of microorganisms in household hot water heaters. Turns out your everyday hot water heater can double as a model hot spring, one of Earth’s extreme environments where important clues about microbial life in the Solar System might be found.

First, researchers want to better understand the genetic differences of similar microbes from across the globe: Which populations of microbes are isolated and what can this tell us?

Penn State’s Astrobiology Research Center (which is part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute) is running this citizen science project, titled, “Pilot Citizen Science Study of Distributed Domestic Water Heater Microbiology Diversity” and here’s how it works:

Participants take a water sample from their kitchen tap and answer 20 questions to help determine which-and how many–microorganisms are present. The whole process takes about 30 minutes. Researchers will then combine your answers (data) with contributions from households across the country. The goal is to generate a first image of the biogeographic distribution of microorganisms across the United States.

I had a chance to chat with Dr. Chris House, Associate Professor of Geosciences & Director of the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center. He gave me the inside scoop on microbes, why they’re important, and how the study will help NASA understand extreme environments around the Solar System.
Off we go!

First, what are microbes doing in water heaters? Is that bad?

Chris: The main microbial group known from water heaters is Thermus. This thermophilc species is also known from hot springs around the world and was first isolated from Yellowstone National Park. It lives by using oxygen to consume organic material from the water. It is not harmful in any way.

Dr. Chris House, principle investigator on the Penn State Astrobiology Citizen Science Project.

Dr. Chris House, principle investigator on the Penn State Astrobiology Citizen Science Project.

What is biogeography? Why is it important to understand microbes from different locations?

Chris: Biogeography is the spatial distribution of organisms around the Earth. There is presently an active debate on how important geography is to the microbial world. Very similar, but genetically distinct, microorganisms are known from across the globe. This project provides the opportunity to survey a high number of locations over thousands of miles. This may elucidate mechanisms of microbial evolution and dispersion.

Why is NASA funding this project? What does this have to do with space?

Chris: Some of the goals of the NASA Astrobiology Institute include understanding microbial evolution and microbial adaptation to extreme environments. Earth’s extreme environments provide important analogs for some of the environments around the Solar System that might harbor microbial life. Water heaters, in this case, are model hot springs that are accessible to the general public.

What would someone actually DO in this project?

Chris: The participants are sampling the hot water from their tap using a filter, collecting water samples in vials, conducting measurements of pH, chloride concentration, temperature, and initiating the culturing of Thermus.

How can someone get started?

Chris: If you know of a household who would like to participate, please fill out our simple web form. We’re still looking for participants in the follow states: AL, AK, DE, DC, KS, KY, ME, MA, NH, NM, ND, RI, SC, SD, TN, VT.

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