• Drake High's Worldwide Artificial Hypoliths Project

     This project was supported by a 2011 Waitt Grant from the National Geographic Society. 
    See this project featured on NASA's web site

    White Mountain array
    Namibia (Africa)
    Gobabeb Centre/Namib-Naukluft National Park
    Lat. 23º 32’ South, Long. 15º 08’ East
    Deployed April 2010. Transect array deployed April 2012
    White Mountains (California, USA)
    Lat. 37º 35’ North, Long. 118º 14’ West
    Deployed July 2011.  Transect array June 2012
    svalbard array
    Devon Island
    Svalbard  (Arctic Norway)
    The University Center in Svalbard
    Lat. 78º 12’ North, Long. 15º 35’ East
    Deployed June 2015
    Devon and Cornwallis Islands (Nunavut, Arctic Canada)
    Haughton Mars Project
    Lat. 75º 26’ North, Long. 89º 52’ West
    Deployed July 2010; other arrays July 2012
    Abu Dhabi array
    Taylor Valley
    Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates)
    Near Jebel Hafeet
    Lat. 24º 02’ North, Long. 55º 48’ East
    Deployed February 2011

    Antarctica (Taylor Dry Valley)  Near lake Hoare
    Lat. 77º 38’ South, Long. 162º 56’ East 
    Deployed November 2013

    (Not shown: Australia, the Atacama Desert, the Himalayas and the Mojave Desert)

    Mountaintops, deserts and polar regions have a lot in common:

    They are extreme environments that appear hostile to life at first, but are full of hidden surprises,
    They have beautiful, other-worldly landscapes, remote and empty,
    They are fragile environments sensitive to climate change,
    And, they all have hypolithic cyanobacteria.

    artificial hypolith

    Left: Hypolithic cyanobacteria under quartz rocks in California's White Mountains (elevation 12,500') Right: an artificial hypolith.

    Astrobiology includes the study of life in extreme environments in order to understand how to find life on other planets, like Mars. Cyanobacteria are some of Earth’s oldest, simplest and toughest microorganisms. They live in lots of places, not just in extreme environments.

    However, wherever conditions get really tough you find them under rocks ("hypolithic" = "under rocks.") Hypolithic cyanobacteria are best known from the Arctic (Devon and Cornwallis Islands) and the Antarctic Dry Valleys.

    They prefer translucent rocks like quartz and marble. The rock acts like a little greenhouse window, transmitting some visible light but blocking a lot of the harsh ultraviolet light that can harm living cells. The rocks also trap moisture under them, and protect the cells underneath from extremes of heat and cold.

    There's a lot that isn't known about hypoliths. Their growth is difficult to quantify, since it responds to the contours of each rock. However, if you place pre-cut rocks of standardized dimensions in extreme environments, you can rigorously control for variables like light transmission, surface composition and roughness, starting inoculations, and time.

    This project has management implications for areas containing hypoliths. When you scuff a quartz pebble with your hiking boots and turn it over, how long does it take for the new lower side to become colonized with a new layer of cells? If the answer is "centuries" then human activities in the area need to be restricted more than if the answer is "a few months."

    Starting in 2010, Sir Francis Drake High School has deployed arrays of artificial hypoliths in extreme locations around the world. Each of these arrays was personally placed in the field by a teacher or student from Drake High, except for the Antarctica one which was placed by PolarTREC teacher Justin Kendhammer and Northern Arizona University professor Egbert Scghwartz. Each large array is approximately one square meter in area and includes sixty stones. We also have smaller arrays of 9 - 30 stones near some of the same locations.  The "stones" are glass, marble and travertine tiles from building supply stores. They have standard dimensions. Variables include:

    Light transmission (3 levels),
    Hot deserts vs. cold ones.

    Places we have put them:
    California's White Mountain Peak, Canada's Devon and Cornwallis Islands, Namibia, Abu Dhabi, the Mojave Desert, Antarctica, Svalbard.

    Places we hope to put them:
    The Himalayas, Australia, the Atacama.

    Lots of people and organizations have helped us:

    This project resulted from NASA's Spaceward Bound program, in particular the Mojave 2009, Namib 2010, United Arab Emirates 2011 and Namib 2012 expeditions.

    We are indebted to NASA scientist Dr. Chris McKay, Dr. Henry Sun of Nevada's Desert Research Institute, and Professor Donald Cowan of the University of Pretoria in South Africa for teaching us about hypoliths.

    We are indebted to Dr. Pascal Lee and Ms. Kira Lorber of the Haughton Mars Project for hosting us at Devon Island and encouraging us to place an array there.

    We are grateful to NASA, the Haughton Mars Project and the Drake Fund for logistical and financial support for this project, and to our Principals Ms. Liz Seabury and Mr. Don Drake for their support and confidence in us.

    We are grateful to Professor Egbert Schwartz, Northern Arizona University, and PolarTREC Teacher Justin Kendhammer for placing our array in the perfect place in Antarctica.

    Twenty Five Company in Novato, California (Formerly Marin Tile Supply) provided the marble and travertine tiles for this project.
    This project was reported in a South African newspaper with a circulation of 250,000. Click here to see the relevant page of the article.

Last Modified on January 26, 2017