#KUFieldWorks: Studying microbes to understand the possibility of life on other planets

"A split image of four photos shows KU researchers conducting fieldwork research in fields, rivers, streams and mountains. The graphic has text in the center that reads, "#KUFieldWorks" "

Editor’s note: Fieldwork provides invaluable insights about real-world environments and processes, expanding and reinforcing what researchers learn in classrooms, labs and collections. KU faculty, staff and students across a spectrum of disciplines are taking their inquiry directly to rivers, prairies, dig sites, glaciers, islands, burial grounds and more this summer. Through the #KUFieldWorks series, we'll join them on their adventures.

Q&A with ecology and evolutionary biology associate professor Ben Sikes

A team of University of Kansas researchers is studying microscopic organisms in extreme environments to see if life is possible beyond Earth. The team’s primary research question is whether microbial communities adapted to extreme environments are more resilient to space-like stresses and whether resilience to one of these stresses — such as radiation — makes a community more resistant to multiple other stresses.

Ben Sikes is the principal investigator of this research. He is an associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and an associate scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research. Sikes and his team conducted field collections in the Mojave National Preserve and in the High Rocky Mountains of Colorado at two different peaks that exceed 14,000 feet: Mount Evans and Quandary Peak.

His work is funded, in part, by the KU Research Grant Opportunity (KU Research GO) program administered by the Office of Research. When researchers compete for grants from the federal government or private foundations, these entities sometimes require initial data to serve as a proof of concept before funding the research project. KU Research GO funds this preliminary research needed to collect data necessary for more competitive proposals.

KU ecology and evolutionary biology associate professor Ben Sikes looks at the Mojave Mountains.

What methods, approaches, experiments, etc. are you using?

We use field collections; microbial culturing; lab experiments, including collaboration with KU Med for gamma radiation; next-generation sequencing to analyze how communities change; and other -omics techniques.

Why does your study matter to your field or for society?

For humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), we need organisms that can survive multiple environmental challenges. We can't simply ship more from Earth. By understanding how microbial communities operate together here on Earth to survive extreme environments, we can learn 1) how they might serve as biological support systems in space (e.g., soil on Mars), 2) whether we can learn general things about how complex organisms respond to multiple space-like stresses (e.g., as proxies for humans), and 3) how to improve planetary protection for microbes moving between Earth, the moon, Mars and beyond. Finally, going to other planets will rely on very efficient and resilient biological support, like growing simple crops and using their waste for other energy or fuel. If we can use microbes like fungi to design and make these closed-loop systems more efficient, we can use that knowledge here on Earth to make our Earth systems more efficient.

What do you enjoy most about being in the field?

Field research reminds you that Earth is a complex and challenging place to live, yet many different organisms have adapted to these challenges with unique traits. Being outside also allows me to remember why I care about biology, that nature is fascinating with loads still to discover. Finally, being outside makes me feel happy, free and a part of something bigger.

What are some memorable (funny, scary, surprising, etc.) moments from the field?

LOL. So many. Two weeks before we went to the Mojave, they had crazy monsoon rains that washed out many sections of paved roads in the park. Our planned sites were near some of these, so we had wild adventures trying to get to them and not get stuck. Kaitlyn Savoy, an undergrad researcher in my lab, got to do a lot of off-road driving (her first time) and there were many big rocks. I got stuck (and unstuck) a couple times. In the Rockies, when coming back down Quandary Peak, two different times we saw mountain goats (big white fluffy) within 10 feet of us. The second time, one came out of a patch of shrubby trees maybe 6 feet in front of us! They were just relaxed, though, and we were tired. It felt like meeting an old friend on the trail by surprise.

Temporary road closures from monsoon rains near the mountains can affect field work.

When is fieldwork frustrating, challenging or overwhelming?

Things almost never go as planned. Fieldwork requires you to think on your feet and adapt. But sometimes you also have to be willing to let go of the plan and get "good enough." Equipment is the No. 1 thing that you expect to fail, but it's amazing how forgetting a bag of Ziplocs or Sharpies can really put a wrinkle in your day. Weather is uncontrollable. Working in teams often helps, but — as with anything — stress and being tired around other folks requires having empathy and setting clear expectations. Nearly all my field experiences with others have made a tighter friendship/bond with other members.

How does fieldwork complement the work you do elsewhere?

We do a lot of lab work to explore and characterize the microbial communities. You can't really see them in the field. Doing the field work connects that lab work to the big picture and gives the samples you work with an identity beyond a number on a tube. Whenever possible, I have students sample from the field or greenhouse projects so that they have a personal connection with the samples. In that way, what happens in the lab goes beyond just complex genetics with tubes. It always makes me think about a place when I see a sample number on a tube.

Samples taken from the field are labeled for further analysis in the lab.

First photo: University of Kansas researchers conduct fieldwork in prairies, rivers, streams and mountains. The #KUFieldWorks series follows researchers on their fieldwork adventures.

Second photo: KU ecology and evolutionary biology associate professor Ben Sikes looks at the Mojave Mountains. 

Third photo: Temporary road closures from monsoon rains near the mountains can affect field work. 

Fourth photo: Samples taken from the field are labeled for further analysis in the lab.