Well, it looks like NASA’s Curiosity rover hasn’t met up with little green men or even found any organic compounds on Mars. Yet. (We’ll add that qualifier.)
Curiosity did sort out some complex chemicals, which – according to Monday’s news – one NASA researcher called “a terrific milestone.”
If and when NASA finds life on Mars, it’s not going to be anything from “Men in Black.” It’s going to be microscopic.
But that’s hardly cause to be disappointed, because we also live on Planet Microbe.
Consider this, from Bill Bryson’s wonderful book “A Short History of Nearly Everything”: “If you totaled up all the biomass of the planet – every living thing, plants included – microbes would account for at least 80 percent of all there is, perhaps more.”
And he adds this: “We large things are just flukes – an interesting side branch. Of the 23 main divisions of life, only three – plants, animals and fungi – are large enough to be seen by the human eye, and even they contain species that are microscopic.”
Microorganisms turn up in every corner of the planet, from the dirt in your yard to the waters of Long Island Sound; from the Arctic ice to scalding thermal vents. They can multiply very rapidly. A whole mess of them are on – and inside – your body right now. And, yes, some of them can make us deathly ill, if not kill us outright.
Bacteria, viruses, prions and fungi run the planet. You wouldn’t be here without them. Did you have toast for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch or a beer with dinner? Or maybe some yogurt or a slice of cheese? Whatever you ate, did you digest it? Have you used a piece of paper? Did you take any medicine today? Are you breathing? Did you go anywhere without having to climb over dead trees and push through piles of garbage and dead bugs?
You have microbes to thank.
They’re everywhere, in incredible numbers.
Aside from their quantities, it’s also important to remember that most microbes are not animals, nor are they plants. They’re completely different types of life, living right here among us. They’re very different from each other too. Each of them plays a part in keeping the balance of nature on Earth.
And maybe on Mars.