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NASA aiming to contain any Martian `bugs'

Several agencies are working to design and build a high-tech laboratory to protect Earth against live bacteria or viruses that could be contained in rock samples NASA plans to scoop up from Mars.

A living Martian germ might pose a risk of disease or infection for the Earth's people, plants or animals when the samples are returned in about 10 years."Samples from Mars should be considered hazardous until proven otherwise," Jonathan Y. Richmond, a biological containment expert for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Sunday at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The risk is very small but not zero," said John Rummel, NASA's planet protection officer. "We're ignorant (about Mars), and what we've learned in biology is that when you are ignorant, be careful."

Although the site and many details are still unknown, NASA plans to build a laboratory that would quarantine the Mars samples behind the same bio-con-tain-ment barriers that scientists now use to prevent the escape of Ebola, a highly contagious and lethal African virus.

Samples collected by robot craft on Mars would be sealed on the Martian surface and not opened until the containers are placed in vaults under negative pressure.

Scientists would work with the samples with pressurized gloves and while wearing biological protection suits.

NASA has done all of this before. The agency built a complex laboratory to protect the Earth from any moon bugs when samples were returned during the Apollo lunar program. No evidence of life was ever found.