Bits of life

It turns out there may actually be life on Mars, but not in the way that many have hoped for. According to a year-long study by a team of astrobiologists at the University of Arkansas (UARK), microbial life could survive in the environment on Mars. The team published their study in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

It was the discovery of Methane on Mars that prompted the team's study. "On Earth, most methane is produced biologically by past or present organisms. The same could possibly be true for Mars," according to lead author Rebecca Mickol, astrobiologist at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences at UARK. "Of course, there are a lot of possible alternatives to the methane on Mars and it is still considered controversial. But that just adds to the excitement."

Methanogens grown in test tubes. Photo Credit: Rebecca Mickol

Methane on Earth is produced by microbes called methanogens, usually found in swamps, marshes and the guts of cattle. These simple organisms on Earth can survive without the Sun and oxygen, relying on hydrogen for energy and carbon dioxide as their main carbon source.

The team's experiment recreated the harsh environments found on Mars and exposed test-tube grown methanogens to them. The Martian environment has extremely low atmospheric pressures, roughly six-thousandths of Earth’s surface pressure. The methanogens were contained in liquids representing what could have flown underneath Mars' surface. The scientists found that all four species managed to survive for three to 21 days.


Surviving in Mars

NASA's Curiosity rover has seen traces of ancient rivers, lakes, and seas that once covered Mars. And because the presence of water on Earth is so indicative of life, scientists have been exploring the possibility that life existed on Mars billions of years ago. This new study shows that it's possible that life still exists on the Red Planet today.

"In all the environments we find here on Earth, there is some sort of microorganism in almost all of them,” said Mickol. “It’s hard to believe there aren’t other organisms out there on other planets or moons as well.”

An artist's impression of a 'wet' Mars. Photo Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The UARK team's study is groundbreaking. Proof that alien life could indeed exist on Mars could change the way we will approach the Red Planet. With plans of bringing human life there, it will be important to search for where this microbial life could be found and how not to damage it —especially if we terraform the planet (Though, the presence of microbes could also help to terraform Mars).

If microbes on Mars are found, they would be life forms originally inhabiting Mars. Think of all that we could learn by studying them. To find out if these microbes do indeed exist on Mars, the team continues to experiment with methanogens to see if they could thrive and grow at such a low pressure.

If such microbes can live on Mars, who is to say that they aren't present elsewhere in our galaxy and beyond? According to Mickol, "with the abundance of life on Earth, in all the different extremes of environments found here, it’s quite possible there exists life — bacteria or tiny microorganisms — somewhere else in the Universe...We’re just trying to explore that idea."


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