Viking biological experiments

Viking biological experiments

The two Viking spacecraft each carried four types of biological experiments to the surface of Mars in the late 1970s. These were the first Mars landers to carry out experiments to look for biosignatures of life on Mars. The landers used a robotic arm to put soil samples into sealed test containers on the craft. The two landers were identical, so the same tests were carried out at two places on Mars' surface, Viking 1 near the equator and Viking 2 far enough north to see frost in winter.Citation
first = Paul | last = Chambers
author-link =
title = Life on Mars; The Complete Story
place = London
publisher = Blandford
year = 1999
doi = | isbn = 0713727470

The Experiments

The four experiments are presented here in the order in which they were carried out by the two Viking landers.

Gas Chromatograph — Mass Spectrometer (PI: Klaus Biemann, MIT)

The GCMS is a device which separates vapor components chemically via a gas chromatograph and then feeds the result into a mass spectrometer, which measures the molecular weight of each chemical. As a result, it can separate, identify, and quantify a large number of different chemicals. The GCMS was used to analyze the components of untreated Martian soil, and particularly those components that are released as the soil is heated to different temperatures. It could measure molecules present at a level of only a few parts per billion.

However, the GCMS measured no significant amount of organic molecules in the Martian soil. In fact, martian soils were found to contain less carbon than lifeless lunar soils returned by the Apollo Program. The strongest organic concentrations it measured were minute trace contaminants brought from Earth, left over from the assembly and cleaning of the sample chambers and instruments. This result was difficult to explain if Martian bacterial metabolism was responsible for the positive results seen by LR (see below).

Gas Exchange (PI: Vance Oyama, NASA Ames)

The GEX experiment looked for gases given off by an incubated soil sample by first replacing the Martian atmosphere with the inert gas Helium. It applied a liquid complex of organic and inorganic nutrients and supplements to a soil sample, first with just nutrients added, then with water added too.lala] Periodically, the instrument sampled the atmosphere of the incubation chamber and used a gas chromatograph to measure the concentrations of several gases, including oxygen, CO2, nitrogen, hydrogen, and methane. The scientists hypothesized that metabolizing organisms would either consume or release at least one of the gases being measured. Such changes in the atmosphere in the sample chamber were to be evidence for life. A positive result was to be followed by the control part of the experiment as described for the PR below.

Labeled Release (PI: Gilbert Levin, Biospherics Inc.)

The Labeled Release LR experiment is the one that gave the most promise for the exobiologists.In the LR experiment, a sample of Martian soil was inoculated with a drop of very dilute aqueous nutrient solution The nutrients (7 molecules that were Miller-Urey products) were tagged with radioactive 14C. The air above the soil was monitored for the evolution of radioactive 14CO2 gas as evidence that microorganisms in the soil had metabolized one or more of the nutrients. Such a result was to be followed with the control part of the experiment as described for the PR below. The result was quite a surprise following the negative results of the first two tests, with a steady stream of radioactive gases being given off by the soil immediately following the first injection.lala] Subsequent injections did not, however, elicit the same reaction, and the experiment remains inconclusive.

Pyrolytic Release (PI: Norman Horowitz, Caltech)

Light, water, and a carbon-containing atmosphere of carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2), simulating that on Mars. The carbon-bearing gases were made with carbon-14 (14C), a heavy, radioactive isotope of carbon. If there were photosynthetic organisms present, it was believed that they would incorporate some of the carbon as biomass through the process of carbon fixation, just as plants and cyanobacteria on earth do. After several days of incubation, the experiment removed the gases, baked the remaining soil at 650 °C (1200 °F), and collected the products in a device which counted radioactivity. If any of the 14C had been converted to biomass, it would be vaporized during heating and the radioactivity counter would detect it as evidence for life. Should a positive response be obtained, a duplicate sample of the same soil would be heated to "sterilize" it. It would then be tested as a control and should it still show activity similar to the first response, that was evidence that the activity was chemical in nature. However, a nil, or greatly diminished response, was evidence for biology. This same control was to be used for any of the three life detection experiments that showed a positive initial result.

Scientific conclusions and ongoing debate

The general scientific comunity believes that the Viking tests remain inconclusive. [ cite journal|title=The Viking Biological Investigation: Preliminary Results |journal=Science|date=1976 - 10 - 01|first=HAROLD P.|last=KLEIN|coauthors=GILBERT V. LEVIN|volume=Vol. 194.|issue=no. 4260|pages=pp. 99 - 105|id= doi|10.1126/science.194.4260.99|url=|format=|accessdate=2008-08-15 ] [Citation | first = Paul | last = Chambers | author-link =
title = Life on Mars; The Complete Story | place = London | publisher = Blandford | year = 1999
doi = | isbn = 0713727470
] Despite the positive result from the Labeled Release experiment, the general conclusion is that the results seen in the four experiments are best explained by oxidative chemical reactions with the Martian soil. An opposing investigator suggested that the biological explanation of the lack of detected organics by GC-MS could be that the oxidizing inventory of the H2O2-H2O solvent well exceeded the reducing power of the organic compounds of the organisms. [ cite journal|title=A Possible Biogenic Origin for Hydrogen Peroxide on Mars:|journal=International Journal of Astrobiology|date=May 22, 2007|first=Dirk|last=Schulze-Makuch|coauthors=Joop M. Houtkooper|volume=|issue=|pages=|id= doi|0.1017/S1473550407003746|url=|accessdate=2008-08-16 ]

The currently held belief is that the Martian soil, being continuously exposed to UV light from the Sun (Mars has no protective ozone layer), has built up a thin layer of a very strong oxidant. A sufficiently strong oxidizing molecule would react with the added water to produce oxygen and hydrogen, and with the nutrients to produce carbon dioxide (CO2). However, it would be a chemical we are unfamiliar with on Earth because the humidity in our atmosphere would immediately destroy any oxidant strong enough to react with water. The exact nature of the hypothetical superoxidant is a subject of ongoing debate today, and some experiments on existing and planned missions are designed to look for it. [See: [] ]

However it has also been argued that the Labeled Release experiment detected so few metabolising organisms in the Martian soil that it would have been impossible for the gas chromatograph to detect them.lala] This view has been put forward by one of the designers of the LR experiment, Gilbert Levin, who believes the results of the Viking landers are diagnostic for life on Mars. He and others have conducted ongoing experiments attempting to reproduce exactly the Viking data, either with biological or non-biological materials on Earth. While no experiment has ever precisely duplicated the Mars LR test and control results, experiments with hydrogen peroxide-saturated titanium dioxide have produced similar results. [cite journal
author = R. C. Quinn, A. P. Zent
title = Peroxide-Modified Titanium Dioxide: a Chemical Analog of Putative Martian Soil Oxidants
journal = Journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres
year = 1999
volume = 29
issue = 1
pages = 59–72
doi = 10.1023/A:1006506022182
] While the majority of astrobiologists still believe that the Viking biological experiments were inconclusive, Levin is not alone in believing otherwise. The claim for life on Mars is grounded on old evidence reinterpreted in the light of recent discoveries mainly by Gilbert Levin, [ Lecture given by Gilbert Levin and published by Electroneurobiología vol. 15 (2), pp. 39-47, 2007] ] Rafael Navarro-GonzálezNavarro-González, R; Navarro, K. F.; de la Rosa, J., Iñiguez, E.; Molina, P.; Miranda, L. D.; Morales, P; Cienfuegos, E.; Coll, P.; Raulin, F., Amils, R. and McKay, C. P. (2006), "The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal volatilization-gas chromato-graphy-MS and their implications for the Viking results", Proc. Natl. Academy of Sciences 103 (44), 16089-16094.] and Ronalds Paepe. cite journal|title=The Red Soil on Mars as a proof for water and vegetation|journal=Geophysical Research Abstracts|date=2007|first=Ronald|last=Paepe|coauthors=|volume=Vol. 9|issue=01794|pages=|id= |url=|format=PDP|accessdate=2008-08-14 ]
On 2006, Mario Crocco, a neurobiologist at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital Borda in Buenos Aires (Argentina), proposed the creation of a new nomenclatural rank that classified these responses as 'metabolic' and therefore belonging to a form of life. Crocco proposed to create new biological ranking categories (taxa), in the new kingdom system of life, in order to be able to accommodate the genus of Martian microorganisms. Crocco proposed the following taxonomical entry: [ cite journal|title=Los taxones mayores de la vida orgánica y la nomenclatura de la vida en Marte: |journal=Electroneurobiología|date=2007 - 04 -14|first=Mario|last=Crocco|coauthors=|volume=15|issue=(2)|pages=pp. 1-34|id= |url=|format=|accessdate=2008-08-14 ]
*Organic life system: Solaria -Biosphere: Marciana - kingdom: Jakobia (named after neurobiologist Christfried Jakob) - Genus et species: "Gillevinia straata". As a result, the "Gillevinia straata" would not be a bacterium (which rather is a terrestrial taxon) but a member of the kingdom 'Jakobia' in the biosphere 'Marciana' of the 'Solaria' system.

The intended effect of the new nomenclature was to reverse the burden of proof concerning the life issue, but the controversy remains and the taxonomy proposed by Crocco has not been accepted by the scientific community; and is considered a single "Nomen nudum".


James Lovelock argued that the Viking mission would have done better to examine the Martian atmosphere than look at the soil. He theorised that all life tends to expel waste gases into the atmosphere, and as such it would be possible to theorise the existence of life on a planet by detecting an atmosphere that was not in chemical equilibrium. [] He concluded that there was enough information about Mars' atmosphere at that time to discount the possibility of life there.

A press commentary argued that, if there was life at the Viking lander sites, it may have been killed by the exhaust from the landing rockets.cite web|title="Did probes find Martian life ... or kill it off?"|url=|Author=Seth Borenstein|publisher=Associated Press via MSNBC|date=2007-01-07|accessdate=2007-05-31] That is not a problem for missions which land via an airbag-protected capsule, slowed by parachutes and retrorockets, and dropped from a height that allows rocket exhaust to avoid the surface. Mars Pathfinder's "Sojourner" rover and the Mars Exploration Rovers each used this landing technique successfully. The Phoenix Scout lander, however, landed with rockets, and may have issues similar to Viking's.

The question will probably not be resolved entirely until future missions to Mars either conclusively demonstrate the presence of life on the planet, identify the chemical(s) responsible for the Viking results, or both. About thirty three years after the Viking program, the Beagle 2, a British robotic lander spacecraft, was sent to Mars on 2003 to specifically assess possible chemical biosignatures of life, but the spacecraft was destroyed on landing.

ee also

*Exploration of Mars
*"Gillevinia straata"
*Life on Mars
*Viking program
*Viking 1
*Viking 2

External links

* [ Viking Lander LR Data Set from NASA]
* [ Viking Biology from the NASA NSSDC Master Catalog of Experiments]
* [ 2001 article about the debate over the LR results]
* [ Life on Mars: Viking and the Biology Experiments]
* [ Circadian rhythms Speculation Study]
* [ Mars: The Living Planet] . Barry E. DiGregorio, with additional contributions by Gilbert V. Levin and Patricia Ann Straat. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 365 pages, 1997.
* [ The Viking GC/MS and the search for organics on Mars] from [ the October 1, 2007 issue of "Analytical Chemistry"]



*cite journal
title= The biology instrument for the Viking Mars mission
author= F. S. Brown, H. E. Adelson, M. C. Chapman, O. W. Clausen, A. J. Cole, J. T. Cragin, R. J. Day, C. H. Debenham, R. E. Fortney, R. I. Gilje, D. W. Harvey, J. L. Kropp, S. J. Loer, J. L. Logan, Jr., W. D. Potter, and G. T. Rosiak
journal= Review of Scientific Instruments
volume= 49
pages = 139–182
year =1978

*cite journal
title= The Viking Mission Search For Life On Mars
author= H. P. Klein, J. Lederberg, A. Rich, N. H. Horowitz, V. I. Oyama, G. V. Levin
journal= Nature
volume= 262
pages = 24–27
year =1976

*cite journal
title= Did Viking Discover Life on Mars?
author= H. P. Klein
journal= Journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres
volume= 29
pages = 1573–0875
year =1999

*cite journal
title= The Viking biology experiments: Epilogue and prologue
author= H. P. Klein
journal= Journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres
volume= 21
pages = 1573–0875
year =1992

*cite journal
title = Search for Organic and Volatile Inorganic Compounds in Two Surface Samples from the Chryse Planitia Region of Mars
author = K. Biemann, J. ORO , P. Toulmin III, L. E. Orgel, A. O. Nier, D. M. Anderson, P. G. Simmons, D. Florey, A. V. Diaz, D. R. Rushneck, and J. A. Biller
journal = Science
volume = 194
issue = 4260
pages = 72–76
year = 1976
doi = 10.1126/science.194.4260.72
pmid = 17793082

*cite journal
title = On the ability of the Viking gas chromatograph–mass spectrometer to detect organic matter
author = Klaus Biemann
journal = Proc Natl Acad Sci
volume = 104
issue = 25
pages = 10310–10313
year = 2007
doi = 10.1073/pnas.0703732104
pmid = 17548829

*cite journal
title = The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal volatilization–gas chromatography–MS and their implications for the Viking results
author = Rafael Navarro-González, Karina F. Navarro, José de la Rosa, Enrique Iñiguez, Paola Molina, Luis D. Miranda, Pedro Morales, Edith Cienfuegos, Patrice Coll, François Raulin, Ricardo Amils, Christopher P. McKay
journal = Proc Natl Acad Sci
volume = 103
issue = 44
pages = 16089–16094
year = 2006
doi = 10.1073/pnas.0604210103
pmid = 17060639

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