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NASA fungus problem puts theory of 'Martian mushrooms' on toast

Fungus found in the lab makes amino acids we think are alien

Festering fungus has become a problem way down in the bowels of NASA, and could lead to false identification of extraterrestrial material.

Research (PDF) presented at the 49th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference revealed that, in one clean room at least, NASA has a bit of an issue with earthly fungi.

Scientists at the NASA Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation office, which holds samples from the moon, meteorites, and pretty much anything that has come from space, took a closer look at one of their labs as part of a curation initiative.

What they found wasn’t too pretty. The agency's meteorite receiving lab, for example, may conform to ISO class 6 cleanliness standards, but swabs taken from the floor, a table, the inside of a laminar flow bench used to process meteorites and a nitrogen filter all produced fungal growths.

And not just any funguses, but some species capable of producing amino acids that are usually considered to be extra-terrestrial when found in meteorites.

The team were able to cultivate healthy fungal colonies from environments that had been isolated for as long as 30 years, with the fungal counts in the samples being far higher than those of bacteria and accounting for between 83 – 97% of a Colony Forming Unit (CFU).

Since previous research didn’t focus on the fungus, the scientists suggest that some fungal species may have been missed. It may also be that fungi prefer conditions at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) rather than at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) or Kennedy Space Center (KSC.)

NASA astrobiologist Daniel Glavin, author of a paper concerning amino acids in meteorites told Science magazine that the findings had caused him to rethink his research, with the acids possibly having a more earthly origin.

Armed with this new knowledge, and with missions such as OSIRIS-REx bringing bits of the asteroid Bennu back to Earth in 2023, boffins plan to up their microbial game to make sure fungus from Earth does not get confused with mushrooms from Mars. ®

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