Posted on Nov 12, 1999


life from the depths of Ballston Lake may shed some light on the kinds of

life forms that NASA scientists should look for on Mars and elsewhere.

Paul Gremillion, assistant professor of civil

engineering, traveled to Kennedy Space Center in Florida recently to speak

to scientists on “Understanding Biological Artifacts of Extreme


He related the highly unusual water chemistry and

microbial ecology of Ballston Lake with some of the ongoing work at NASA,

including the search for evidence of microbial activity on Mars and

exploration of the perennially ice-covered oceans of Europa, a moon of


He presented this talk to a group of scientists and

engineers working in ecological programs at the Merritt Island space

facility and on the Mars and lunar colonization program.

Gremillion, who specializes in chemical systems found in

lakes, was invited by a former colleague who directs life sciences support

for shuttle missions.

NASA recently lost a Mars probe – the Climate Orbiter

— that was to aid in the investigation of life on Mars. Its sister ship

– the Polar Lander – is to land on Dec. 3. Scientists are designing a

probe to penetrate the ice and sample the water on Europa, Gremillion

said. The next mission to Europa is planned for launch in November 2003.

“I wanted to tie in the unusual environment of

Ballston Lake with some of the things that they study,” Gremillion

said. “Nobody there studies lakes, but they do a lot of biological

and ecological work on odd systems, like looking for evidence of what

microbial evidence on Mars might look like. If life exists or existed, it

stands to reason that it may be astonishingly different than on


For example, scientists might expect microbial life on

Mars to be photosynthetic but not use oxygen, much like some of the

microbes Gremillion, his students and colleagues have found in Ballston


NASA scientists are investigating microbes found in

extreme environments on earth, like those found near hydrothermal vents on

the ocean floor, Gremillion said. “These life forms are not the

typical base of the food chain, the chlorophyll-bearing algae,” he


On the surface, Ballston Lake is like any other. But the

south end is deep and narrow; there is not adequate wave action to

circulate the water column, as happens in most lakes. About 18 meters

down, you'll find the chemocline – a chemical stratification of

oxygen-depleted water that has high levels of iron and low levels of

sulfate. In other words, the environment at and below the chemocline is

extreme, Gremillion said. Yet, there are life forms – microscopic

bacteria — that thrive there.

Gremillion is one of a number of faculty and students

doing research under the Ballston Lake Initiative, a multidisciplinary

research project examining the natural processes and effects of human

impact on the lake. Project director in John Garver, director of

environmental studies.