Friday, December 16, 2011

Proof that living conditions on Mars can harbour life

Scientists have been speculating about life on Mars. Its conditions are not quite suitable for humans, but small micro-organisms might be able to live on our neighbouring planet, despite the temperatures ranging from -87 to -5 degrees Celsius, and the lack of oxygen. It was already suggested that life could have formed on Mars because expeditions to the planet revealed it once had liquid water. Now, scientists have found microbes living on Earth in Mars-like conditions, showing that some life forms are actually able to survive on Mars.

Microbes in lava
Researchers from Oregon State University found bacteria from the Pseudomonas strain inside mountains, living in caves consisting of lava, dubbed lava tubes. They used iron as a source of energy, while most life forms use sugar molecules, like glucose. The iron-rich environment with low oxygen and temperature actually mimics the situation on Mars, which made the bacteria an interesting target to study to reveal what life may look like on Mars.
The entrance to one of the lava tubes in Oregon.
The search for life
The findings support the many clues we already have that Mars may be a planet on which life can be found. Because the Pseudomonas strain is one of the most common bacteria on our planet, we can study its physiology in more detail, and use that for a more targeted approach for the search of life on Mars. Actually, the American scientists already took the bacteria to the lab, and experimented with Mars-like conditions. They found that the microbes managed to stay alive, which is promising for life on our neighbouring planet.

Water on Mars
Previously, expeditions have already revealed to us that there is water on Mars. It is mostly found frozen solid though, because of the low temperatures. But geological research suggests that water might have existed in liquid form a long time ago, during which life may have evolved. So far, this is the most promising clue of life on Mars, because organisms as we know them rely on the life-giving capacities of water.

The Pseudomonas strain is another clue that tells us where to look for life on The Red Planet. But it still is no actual proof for life on Mars. In the future, we will probably getting more evidence on whether life exists or not, as NASA recently launched a new Mars rover, that is supposed to arrive in August next year. It contains all sorts of equipment to measure radiation, wind and humidity, and more parameters that tell us something about its suitability for life. The project is costing the American tax payer 2,5 billion dollar.

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