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Microgravity: living on the International Space Station
Microgravity: living on the International Space Station

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5 Can microbes survive elsewhere in the Universe?

As well as thinking about life in the Universe, you may wonder how well microbes can survive in very hostile conditions on Earth. The Open University has carried out some research on this in low Earth orbit and in extreme physical conditions on Earth.

Watch Video 4, which is an interview with a microbiologist discussing this research, then complete Activity 6.

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Video 4 Interview with a microbiologist.
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Activity 6 Survivability of microbes

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Choose the correct options to complete the following statements.

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2. The name of the mission to investigate Devonian rocks on the ISS was:

a. 

Devon1


b. 

TP


c. 

OU-20


d. 

TP20


e. 

Beare1


The correct answer is c.

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In Video 4, the survivability of microbes on the outside of the ISS was discussed. In the ISS experiment ‘Biopan-6’, a group of tardigrades (water bears) – multicellular organisms, roughly the size of a grain of salt (Figure 5) – hold the record for the longest-lived animals in open space. Read this BBC News report [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] about the experiment and watch the video within it.

A coloured photograph of a tardigrade or water bear.
Figure 5 A tardigrade, or water bear, which is approximately 0.2 mm long.

Amazingly, tardigrades can effectively hibernate for weeks and can ‘come back to life’ after it comes into contact with water. This is called dessication. Watch Video 5 which shows this happening.

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Video 5 Anhydrobiosis in tardigrades.
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Which other organisms do you think could survive in an extreme environment? Watch Video 6 and then complete Activity 7 (which also draws on the discussion in Video 4).

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Video 6 The life of extremophiles.
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Activity 7 What conditions make it difficult for life?

Timing: ‘Allow approximately 15 minutes’

Based on Videos 4 and 6, complete the following statements.

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You will now look at the habitability of other planets.