Copyright ‹ 2004 by Shannon Rupert Robles. Published by The Mars Society with permission.
In the late 1990Õs, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recognized the value of studying microbial ecology in order to better understand ecological systems and instituted a program devoted to the development of microbial observatories. The programÕs purpose was to establish a network of sites where scientists could focus on the discovery of unique microorganisms and the study of the microbial diversity and ecological processes in various ecosystems. Currently, there are eight Microbial Observatories (MO) funded in the United States under this program, which awarded approximately 2.5 million dollars per year between 2002-2004. The average award varied from one-half million to one million dollars over five years. The major goals of a microbial observatory are to identify unknown microbes, characterize the properties and activities of newly discovered and poorly understood microorganisms and their communities, provide educational and outreach activities and to disseminate these finding using an established internet-accessible knowledge network1, 2. In addition, microbial observatories each follow an established long-term ecological research (LTER) program, while allowing for additional environment specific research3. The LTER program was established in 1980 by the NSF to investigate ecological processes over long temporal and broad spatial scales and to promote synthesis and comparative research across varying sites and differing ecosystems. There are currently twenty-four LTER sites in the United States and a network office in New Mexico. The program has an annual budget of 17.8 million dollars and supports 1100 scientists and students with an additional 44 million dollars in funding. Twenty countries other than the United States now have LTER programs of their own, including Canada and Australia4.
The goals of these two programs are similar to many of the goals identified as being important at Mars Analog sites: to discover new microorganisms and learn more about those we have already identified, to use databases and the internet to communicate and disseminate the results of scientific research being done at a specific location, and to educate the general public and to support student researchers. For these reasons, the Mars Analog Research Station Program would benefit from adopting the procedures and protocols developed by the scientific community for the study of microbes and their ecology at microbial observatories.