Newswise — It’s one of the biggest questions of humankind. Are we alone in the universe?

To help us find an answer, UNLV Life Sciences professor and researcher Brian Hedlund will be studying bacteria and archaea, both single-celled microorganisms, found in a hot spring in northern Nevada.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently awarded Hedlund and collaborators at California State University - San Bernardino, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and Stanford University, a $900,000 grant to study bacteria and archaea found in Great Boiling Spring, located about 100 miles northeast of Reno, in Gerlach.

“This spring has deep lineages of life that have never been studied before,” Hedlund said. “The technology is now available to enable us to gain insights into the biology of these organisms, which will help provide insight into the early diversification of life on Earth.”

Hedlund explained that the hot spring is similar to the high-temperature geothermal area where life may have first formed on our planet. And new technology is allowing scientists to test hypotheses on the organisms' catabolic and anabolic potential, following up on genomics work supported by a previous NASA grant. The work may also provide insights into molecular adaptations to life in extreme environments and the early diversification of life.

“We know this hot spring has deep lineages of life that have never been studied before,” Hedlund said. “We’re mapping out life on Earth in a habitat similar to what's been found on other planets.”

To date, the "microbial dark matter" Hedlund is studying can't be grown in a lab, so it’s important to study them where they are abundant, such as Great Boiling Spring. Most bacteria and archaea are about one micron long. In other words 1,000 organisms span the head of a pin.

“We know a little about half the creatures on our own planet and basically nothing about the other half,” Hedlund said. “We believe that understanding all life on Earth will allow us to understand if life can exist elsewhere.”