“Arsenic and Outer Space” Science Café Nov. 2 at Highlands

New Mexico Highlands University presents “Arsenic and Outer Space: What Would E.T. Really Look Like?” in a free science café Nov. 2 from 5 – 7 p.m. in Room 215 of the Lora Shields Building at 806 National Ave.

The university’s chapter of Sigma Xi, a scientific research society, is sponsoring the public event. Light refreshments will be served.
Microbiology professor Richard Plunkett is chairing the university’s panel for the science café. Other panel members include natural resources professor Ken Bentson, biology professor Dick Greene, and forestry professor Sara Brown.
Plunkett will talk about some surprising NASA research at Mono Lake, Calif. to get the science café dialogue started between the scientists and the public. Science cafes are growing in popularity nationwide as a way to help the public connect with science.
“In 2010, NASA scientists researching the possibility of extraterrestrial life published a study that found bacteria living in Mono Lake that can tolerate extreme environments like high concentrations of arsenic, which is highly toxic,” Plunkett said. “The scientists then took these bacteria and grew them in the lab, starving them of phosphorous. The bacteria still thrived.
“We assume that life on other planets might be chemically like life on earth. This NASA research changes that view because phosphorous, an element we thought was critical for life, can be replaced by something toxic like arsenic,” Plunkett said.
Plunkett, who earned his Ph.D. is in microbiology from the University of New Mexico, joined the Highlands University faculty in 2008.
His research focus is the physiology and cell biology of microorganisms, and how they interact with their environment.
“Microorganisms can live in conditions we find extremely inhospitable; places with no oxygen, extremely high temperatures, high salt concentrations, and even toxic chemicals and acids,” Plunkett said. “Studying how microbial cells overcome harsh conditions teaches us how to use them to clean up toxic waste from mining, fossil fuels extraction, industry, and other human activity.”
Plunkett’s students work alongside him in his microbiology lab at Highlands.
“At Highlands, we have a lot of student involvement in scientific research to complement what they learn in the classroom,” Plunkett said. “This hands-on research experience gives our students training in scientific methods, and they’re doing cutting edge, real research.”