Mini-Microbes Thrive In Mars-like Conditions Here On Earth

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Ultra-small bacteria can thrive in an environment very like a young planet Mars, according to a new study.

When you’re trying to figure out if there was ever life on Mars, one way is to spot the evidence on today’s barren planet, the other is to find some teeny-tiny microbes battling some seriously harsh conditions here on Earth.

In the extreme environment of Ethiopia’s Dallol hot springs, an international team of researchers has found a strain of the Nanohaoarchaeles Order bacteria embedded in a salt chimney, deposited by supersaturated water at temperatures of 89 degrees Celsius and at the incredibly acidic pH of 0.25.

The sampling site at Dallol, Ethiopia (Credit: Gomez et al/Europlanet)

Gomez et al/Europlanet

“This is an exotic, multi-extreme environment, with organisms that need to love high temperature, high salt content and very low pH in order to survive,” said Dr Felipe Gómez from Astrobiology Center in Spain (CAB (CSIC-INTA)), in a statement.

The samples were discovered on a field trip funded by the Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure in January 2017, The team scraped some of the thin layers of salt deposits form a yellow chimney stack and a pool of water around the outcrop to see what they could find.

Dallol looks like a science-fiction technicolour landscape as moisture in the air from superheated water is saturated with various salts including silver chloride, zinc iron sulphide, manganese dioxide and normal rock-salt. The chemicals turn the terrain vivid with yellows, reds greens and blues.

It’s not the sort of place you expect to find much sign of life, but the scientists found tiny, spherical structures in the salt with a high carbon content. They are just 50-500 nanometers round – as much as 20 times smaller than your average bacteria. In some cases, the microorganisms are surrounded by crystals, suggesting that they’re active in the geochemical cycle at Dallol.

This area, dominated by a volcano and the surrounding geothermal area, is one of the hottest places on Earth. Hydrothermal activity in the area is fuelled by water that is heated and infused with gases in a reservoir beneath the volcano and the whole place is inside the wide Assale salt plain.

The combination makes this unique and complex environment very similar to what Mars may once have been like.

“Deep investigation of the characteristics of this amazing site will improve our understanding of the limits of life on Earth and inform our search for life on Mars and elsewhere in the Universe,” said Barbara Cavalazzi of the University of Bologna, lead author of the review.

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