Microbes found in one of Earth’s most hostile places, giving hope for life on Mars

Mar 1, 2018

By Elizabeth Pennisi

A hardy community of bacteria lives in Chile’s Atacama Desert—one of the driest and most inhospitable places on Earth—where it can survive a decade without water, new research confirms. The work should put to rest the doubts of many scientists, who had suggested that previous evidence of microscopic life in this remote region came from transient microbes. And because the soils in this location closely resemble those on Mars, these desert dwellers may give hope to those seeking life on the Red Planet’s similarly hostile surface.

The work “does a good job of justifying that these organisms really do live there,” says Julie Neilson, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who was not involved with the study. The Atacama Desert may be uninhabitable for us, but for these organisms, “it’s their ecosystem,” she says.

The Atacama Desert stretches for 1000 kilometers along the Pacific coast of Chile, and rainfall can be as low as 8 millimeters per year. There’s so little precipitation that there’s very little weathering, so over time the surface has built up a crusty layer of salts, further discouraging life there. “You can drive for 100 kilometers and not see anything like a blade of grass,” Neilson says. Although she and others have found some bacteria there, many biologists have argued that those microbes are not full-time residents, but were blown in, where they die a slow death.

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One comment on “Microbes found in one of Earth’s most hostile places, giving hope for life on Mars”

  • @OP- The work should put to rest the doubts of many scientists, who had suggested that previous evidence of microscopic life in this remote region came from transient microbes.

    The Atacama has extremophiles which have evolved as the climate has dried, – but many or most, have evolved recently in terms of geological time.

    For example, it has some of the most drought-tolerant Cacti on the planet, but Cacti as a group of genera, are relatively young in evolutionary terms.

    And because the soils in this location closely resemble those on Mars,

    Certainly NOT in terms of temperature!

    The temperature in the Atacama Desert can reach highs of around 104°F (40°C) during the daytime, whilst falling to temperatures of 41°F (5°C) or below at night. [www.beautifulworld.com › Home › South America]

    In winter (June, July and August) the average daytime temperature is 22°C (72°F) and by night 4°C (39°F), descending to -2°C (28°F)[/www.explore-atacama.com/eng/atacama-guides/weather.]

    these desert dwellers may give hope to those seeking life on the Red Planet’s similarly hostile surface.

    This sounds like wish-thinking to me, as both the time-scale and the temperature range seem wrong!

    On average, the temperature on Mars is about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius).
    In winter, near the poles temperatures can get down to minus 195 degrees F (minus 125 degrees C).[/www.space.com › Science & Astronomy].

    If any life exists on Mars, it is likely to be remnants of something which evolved when the planet was warmer and wetter, so any bacteria at present temperatures, are more likely to be similar to those in Antarctica than those in the Atacama!



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