Life on Mars is possible, thanks US scientists that discovered bacteria living in the driest place on Earth. Researchers from Washington State University (WSU) said they observed 'sleeping' bacteria in the world’s driest desert, that can rebound after lying dormant for decades. This new finding points towards the possibility of alien life lurking in the soils of Mars, the study reveals.
Scientists have long wondered whether microbes in the soil of this hyperarid environment, the most similar place on Earth to the Martian surface, are permanent residents or merely dying vestiges of life, blown in by the weather. But in 2015, after Dr Schulze-Makuch and his team went to the Atacama for the first time and, by chance, encountered wet weather, this discovery was made.
In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, WSU scientists showed that even the hyper-arid Atacama Desert can provide a habitable environment for microorganisms. The researchers found that specialised bacteria are able to live in the soil, going dormant for decades, without water and then reactivating and reproducing when it rains.
“It has always fascinated me to go to the places where people don’t think anything could possibly survive and discover that life has somehow found a way to make it work,” said planetary scientist Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch, from WSU, who led the research. “Our research tell us that if life can persist in Earth’s driest environment there is a good chance it could be hanging in there on Mars in a similar fashion.”
“In the past researchers have found dying organisms near the surface and remnants of DNA but this is really the first time that anyone has been able to identify a persistent form of life living in the soil of the Atacama Desert,” Schulze-Makuch said. “We believe these microbial communities can lay dormant for hundreds or even thousands of years in conditions very similar to what you would find on a planet like Mars and then come back to life when it rains,” he added.
While life in the driest regions of Earth is tough, the Martian surface is an even harsher environment. As the planet dried up and grew colder, these organisms could have evolved many of the adaptations lifeforms in the Atacama soil use to survive on Earth, Schulze-Makuch said. “We know there is water frozen in the Martian soil and recent research strongly suggests nightly snowfalls and other increased moisture events near the surface,” he said. “If life ever evolved on Mars, our research suggests it could have found a subsurface niche beneath today’s severely hyper-arid surface,” he said.