New organisms discovered in the rocky soils of some of highest volcanoes in South America’s Atacama region present the possibility of life on Mars.
Through DNA analysis of the soil on Llullaillaco, the fifth tallest volcano in the world, microbiologists from the University of Colorado Boulder found bacteria, fungi and other single-celled microorganisms, called archaea, that were able to survive in some of the harshest conditions on Earth — which also resemble the environment on Mars. This includes thin atmosphere, rocky terrain, intense solar radiation (temperatures can swing from 14 degrees Fahrenheit at night to 133 degrees Fahrenheit during the day) and extremely low soil carbon and water levels.
“We think this is the closest Earth analogue for Mars,” researcher Steve Schmidt told us. “There is some evidence that there is water just below the surface of Mars in some places and the conditions may be somewhat like what we found on Llullaillaco. Mars is much more extreme even (mainly much colder with a much thinner atmosphere). But some astrobiologists think that Mars was milder millions of years ago and therefore Llullaillaco may be a better analogue for ancient Mars.”
The microbes also seemed to covert energy in a new way:
…the scientists couldn’t find any evidence that the microbes were photosynthetic. Instead, they think the microbes might slowly convert energy by means of chemical reactions that extract energy and carbon from wisps of gases such as carbon monoxide and dimethyl sulfide that blow into the desolate mountain area.
The next step is to recreate the unfriendly environment in a laboratory so researchers can study how microbes survive under such inhospitable circumstances.
“Our goal is to explore the most extreme high elevation environments on Earth so that we can know the boundaries for life on Earth — that may give us a clue about where to expect life on other planets,” Schmidt said.
The findings are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Bioigeosciences.
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