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The success of the Mars exploration rovers


Field trips with the NASA Astrobiology Institute
Baruch Blumberg Physician
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Another site was… there’s a… a place down, halfway down the Baja Peninsula in Southern, you know, in lower California where there's a big oil polder… salt polders where they dry salt essentially, they… they cordoned off a square mile of pools and there's a lot of wind there and a lot of sun, and it evaporates very rapidly and then they had huge front-loaders and bulldozers and immense trucks, and, you know, they pack up all the salt, and it goes to Japan mostly. Well, that's a very interesting environment because as the water evaporates, it gets more and more saline. Now, the… the early… the early Earth was probably saline, very saline, okay, so the NASA scientists spent years studying biomats in that area. Now, biomats, which are very similar to the biofilms that you get in… in medical issue, biomats were very common in the Cretaceous, and they can flourish in places where flowering… flowering plants won't. So in these salt polders, there were masses of these biomats and sometimes, it was really bizarre, they would kind of creep up on ground, or you'd find them on the ground where… where the water had evaporated, it was like a Cretaceous landscape you were walking through. So I was there for about a week and they were doing, it's… it’s a kind of an out of the way place, you know, it's was mostly industrial, it's not a tourist spot; oh, that's where grey whales breed, that's one of the major places, so it is in the breeding season, people come down and see the whales, but it was a fascinating place. There was one great restaurant there, a really outstanding place, there was a small fishery there too, you know, they had fishing boats, and so they had really excellent fresh fish, but the margaritas were… were really good so at the end of the day, you could have one margarita and rest easy for the next day.

So that was another site, and then, oh, yeah, and then I went to Iron Mountain Mine, that's near Redding, California, so that is up Route 5 in northern California not far from the Oregon border. And if you ever drive up in that direction, as you're approaching Redding off to the west, and you see a kind of tortured looking mountain, that's Iron Mountain Mine. And it was… it was a site for… they mined… they mined some silver and gold but I think it was mostly zinc and eventually they mined iron pyrites. Well, one of the things they did is they blew up the top of the mountain in order to extract stuff, a very damaging thing but then the mine was abandoned in the 1960s. Well, you get about 60 inches of rain a year up there, it's one of the rainiest places in California, and that washes through this iron pyrites, you get sulphuric acid and it's highly exothermic and it pollutes the upper part of the Sacramento River so that… that acidic mine rainfall which went down to pH of zero, and pH1 and 2, highly acidic...

[Q] And there are living organisms?

Yes. And it was hard to get in to them, because you could go in some of these old mine tunnels. Well, I went down there with one of… one of the scientists who subsequently became a principal investigator in the NASA Astrobiology Institute, well, she’d been… that had been a subject of much of her research for years and… but there was a… it was a DEA site, you know, for remediating this acid mine flow which they'd done, they’d put a half a billion dollars into it and there was an enormous amount of engineering diverting the water, treating it, you know with alkali, which was fairly successful. The salmon were beginning to come back. But we had to go… I'm kind of claustrophobic, you know, and to get into this… to get into the interior, to the places where the biofilms were really interesting, there was a mine shaft that was actually horizontal, you know, went into the side of the mountain. Well, when I went there, I thought, well, how am I going to do this? But, you know, everybody else was going so I… so I… we were all equipped, you know, we had hard hats, of course, and then protective coverall and boots and carried oxygen and, you know, a mining light in case the lights went out, and it was… but it… it was… it's hard rock mining so you're in this really solid rock tunnel but with water flowing everywhere and filled with these bizarre organisms and biofilms, including, I think they're called snottilites [sic], they're… they're… they look like… like the word sounds, and they have these long chain polysaccharides which give them this character, and that's an... of these very complex mixtures.

Let me see, so that was another, oh, yeah, Yellowstone. Yellowstone is the biggest geothermal site in… in United… in North America probably, and there are, and you know the magma is very close to the ground there. There’s… the BBC had a program on a big volcano in Yellowstone, I don't think it was shown here, at least I didn't see it, and the… but they're fascinating sites there and each of those pools are kind of different and you… you can look at the coloration, you… you've been to Yellowstone?

[Q] Yes.

Well, you remember those pools and they have very strange and fascinating colors, you can partially identify the organisms…

[Q] Based on color.

Based on color and, of course, examination. So there were multiple research projects that, some of which we were funding. But then we developed a kind of program with the Parks Service, which I helped with, to provide educational material; we paid for roadside signs, trailside signs rather, to… to introduce the public to the microfauna. You know, most of the interest in Yellowstone is in the, you know, is in the buffaloes and the grizzlies and the elk and so forth, but the microfauna is also fascinating and we're… and NAI is going to help with it, they're putting up a new exhibition centre. And I did something similar in Volcano National Park, that's on the big island in Hawaii. You know, there's a vent in the Pacific, in the continental… the… the… there's a shift over that vent so each of the islands gets to have an active volcano as the plates… as the tectonic plates pass over this hot hole and there's a new one forming, by the way. It's to the east of the… of the last Hawaiian island. There's a sub-surface volcano developing there.

[Q] And those volcanoes are what? Create the vents?

They… they… you have underwater eruptions sometimes. I'm not sure on that one but I… these are… the volcanoes on… on Hawaii are shield volcanoes, you know, they're… they're midplate volcanoes, and they tend to be non-explosive, so the stuff kind of flows out and in a funny way they're the safest volcanoes in the world because you don't get these horrible explosions. That was an awesome sight and there were several others. So… so much of what I did was connected with extremophiles, and then we got interested in, as you might imagine, in the viruses in extreme locations.


American research physician Baruch Blumberg (1925-2011) was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 along with D Carleton Gajdusek for their work on the origins and spread of infectious viral diseases that led to the discovery of the hepatitis B virus. Blumberg’s work covered many areas including clinical research, epidemiology, virology, genetics and anthropology.

Listeners: Rebecca Blanchard

Dr Rebecca Blanchard is Director of Clinical Pharmacology at Merck & Co., Inc. in Upper Gwynedd, Pennsylvania. Her education includes a BSc in Pharmacy from Albany College of Pharmacy and a PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. While at Utah, she studied in the laboratories of Dr Raymond Galinsky and Dr Michael Franklin with an emphasis on drug metabolism pathways. After receiving her PhD, Dr Blanchard completed postdoctoral studies with Dr Richard Weinshilboum at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on human pharmacogenetics. While at Mayo, she cloned the human sulfotransferase gene SULT1A1 and identified and functionally characterized common genetic polymorphisms in the SULT1A1 gene. From 1998 to 2004 Dr Blanchard was an Assistant Professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. In 2005 she joined the Clinical Pharmacology Department at Merck & Co., Inc. where her work today continues in the early and late development of several novel drugs. At Merck, she has contributed as Clinical Pharmacology Representative on CGRP, Renin, Losartan, Lurasidone and TRPV1 programs and serves as chair of the TRPV1 development team. Dr Blanchard is also Co-chair of the Neurology Pharmacogenomics Working Group at Merck. Nationally, she has served the American Society of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics on the Strategic Task Force and the Board of Directors. Dr Blanchard has also served on NIH study sections, and several Foundation Scientific Advisory Boards.

Tags: Baja Peninsula, Iron Mountain Mine, California, NASA Astrobiology Insitute, Yellowstone, Cretaceous, Hawaii

Duration: 9 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2007

Date story went live: 28 September 2009