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This astrobiologist wants you to find ‘extreme’ rocks

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A new crowdsourcing site called Rockiology asks citizen scientists for help finding rocks. In particular, Jocelyne DiRuggerio is seeking stones harboring tiny creatures so tough they survive in some of Earth’s most hostile environments.

“We can go to some places and collect rocks, but we can’t go everywhere.”

Studying them, she hopes, may demonstrate that similar critters could exist in extreme conditions on moons or other planets somewhere in the vast universe.

DiRuggiero, an astrobiologist and associate research professor at Johns Hopkins University, specializes in studying these single-cell microbes, called “extremophiles.” To learn more about them she needs more samples; to gather those samples, she needs help searching the most dry, barren places on Earth: deserts, dry valleys in Antarctica, places that resemble other planets.

“We can go to some places and collect rocks, but we can’t go everywhere,” DiRuggiero says.

To expand her collection range, she launched Rockiology (The name is a mashup of “rocks” and “biology”), a website with information on what she’s seeking, what to look for, and how to send her photos of the rocks—and perhaps eventually the rocks themselves.

Science ‘for real’

DiRuggiero, who likes the idea of teaching science through activity, has started cultivating what she hopes will be a small army of volunteers in the field.

She’s already got at least one soldier. In the southwestern desert city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Darci J. Harland, a former public school science and English teacher and university professor of education, answered the call. She says she found the Rockiology site while scouting for home-school projects for her sons, Caleb, 10, and Corban, 6.

“I’ve always enjoyed getting kids ‘out into the field’ to collect data, not just talking about it,” Harland says. “And what better way to do that then to collect data for an actual scientist who needs your help?”

She, her sons, and some other homeschool families have taken basic lessons in rocks, “extremophiles,” and DiRuggiero’s work. They’ve made a successful rock-collecting expedition near the base of Turtle Back Mountain.

“We found some colonization and are working now to upload it all to the Rockiology website,” Harland wrote in an email. “Being able to communicate with the scientist on this project has been very rewarding both for me and for the students. They were careful in their data collection knowing it was ‘for real.'”

Life elsewhere

DiRuggiero has been cracking earthly rocks while engaged in the work of astrobiology. NASA defines this as the “study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.”

There’s a peer-reviewed journal called Astrobiology, and scientists conducting research, but of course, as yet, no actual astrobiology off the Earth has been found. But the cosmos is too vast, DiRuggiero believes, and its perhaps 2 trillion galaxies too crowded with stars and planets for there not to be life out there somewhere.

To shed light on the mystery of whether life could exist elsewhere, DiRuggiero hopes to know more about creatures that live in conditions on Earth that resemble that on other planets. Some of those places are very dry, or very salty, or both.

Searching for ‘extremophiles’

The Atacama desert in Chile, for instance. With its expanses of desolate, reddish terrain cracked in some spots, littered with stones in others and broken with jagged cliffs and rock formations, the place could easily pass for Mars. DiRuggiero has conducted several rock-collecting expeditions there.

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She’s found a number of Atacama sodium chloride rocks that have been “colonized,” as she likes to put it, by microbes. In the exposed innards of a cracked rock, the “colonies” give away their position in a faint green haze on the white surface. There the creatures find refuge from the more dry, sunny, and windy conditions on the surface.

Microbes that can live in a salt rock might help a scientist learn something about creatures living in, say, briny water. That could be significant for astrobiologists wondering about the prospect of liquid water on Mars, which could be a sign that the place could support life. If water exists there as a liquid, it is likely to be very salty, perhaps toxic.

The hunt goes on for more information about “extremophiles,” and the search party now includes anyone who signs on for citizen science and Rockiology.

Source: Johns Hopkins University