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[FWD] Martian samples quarantine facility

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  • Peter Carbines
    =====================forwarded article=================== Office of News and Public Information National Academy of Sciences Washington, D.C. Contacts:
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2001
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      =====================forwarded article===================

      Office of News and Public Information
      National Academy of Sciences
      Washington, D.C.

      Jennifer Wenger, Media Relations Associate
      Mark Chesnek, Media Relations Assistant
      (202) 334-2138; e-mail: news@...

      FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 29, 2001


      WASHINGTON -- Work on a quarantine facility must begin soon if it is to
      be ready in time for spacecraft returning to Earth with martian rocks
      and soil in tow, says a new report from the National Academies' National
      Research Council. Although the probability is extremely low that these
      samples will contain hazardous organisms, prudence dictates that all
      material must be rigorously quarantined at first.

      With current projections indicating that the first sampling mission to
      Mars could launch in 2011, martian samples could reach Earth as early as
      2014. A facility that isolates the samples from terrestrial organisms
      and chemicals -- while safeguarding the Earth's environment from
      possible contamination -- will probably take seven years or more to
      design, build, and test.

      "Building this type of quarantine facility is a project of enormous
      complexity," said John Wood, chair of the committee that wrote the
      report and staff scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
      Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. "We strongly recommend that this process
      get under way as soon as possible."

      One major problem in constructing such a facility is the unprecedented
      need for both biological containment and clean-room conditions.
      Biological containment is designed to protect the Earth's environment
      from possible contamination by the samples. Clean-room conditions are
      needed to prevent terrestrial organisms, dust, or other foreign matter
      from getting into the samples and changing their properties. Part of the
      problem is that contradictory measures are traditionally employed in
      these two types of facilities. Biological containment facilities enclose
      samples at lower-than-ambient air pressures so any leakage moves air
      into the sample chamber and away from the external environment. Clean-
      room cabinets, on the other hand, are held at greater-than-ambient gas
      pressures so leakage is outward, protecting the enclosed samples from
      external contamination.

      Because a facility combining these features has never been built,
      extensive experimentation and testing will be needed to design a system
      of two-way protection. This must be accomplished before design work on
      the actual Mars quarantine facility begins. Experimentation also is
      needed to identify effective sterilization techniques that have a
      minimal impact on the physical and chemical properties of the samples.
      The report recommends that a continuing committee of biological and
      geochemical experts be assembled to oversee all aspects of planning,
      construction, and operation of the quarantine facility.

      To maximize resources and expedite the process of meeting environmental
      requirements, the quarantine facility should be affiliated with -- and
      located adjacent to -- an existing containment facility such as those
      operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta,
      the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Ft.
      Detrick, Md., or the facility projected by the medical branch of the
      University of Texas at Galveston. However, NASA should operate and be
      responsible for the quarantine facility, the report recommends.

      Because operations in a maximum-security containment facility are highly
      constrained, the report recommends that only the most basic preliminary
      examination necessary to document the samples and test them for
      biohazards should be carried out there. Once the samples are cleared for
      release, a broader range of examinations should be carried out
      elsewhere. Plans should be in place to promptly sterilize a portion of
      the samples after they are received so they can be safely transferred
      out of the facility for study in specialized university

      The committee proposed specific guidelines for release of samples from
      the facility. If found to contain no organic matter or other evidence of
      life, they could be released without sterilization. If the samples
      contain possible evidence of life, which is the most likely case,
      portions that have been sterilized by heat or gamma radiation could be
      certified for release and study elsewhere. If the samples are found to
      contain unmistakable evidence of life, they should not be released at
      all until an expert panel of biologists is convened to rethink the
      situation; the establishment of a research facility dedicated to their
      study, far more extensive than the quarantine facility, will probably be

      The study was sponsored by NASA. The National Research Council is the
      principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the
      National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution
      that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under
      a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

      [roster snipped for brevity]

      the World Wide Web at http://www.nap.edu . The Academies' Web site also
      will feature supplemental information and an extended Web treatment at
      http://national-academies.org/webextra/mars . Reporters may obtain a
      copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed

      =============================== ends =======================

      Peter Carbines
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