In the hyperarid center of the Atacama Desert in Chile, life persists despite abysmal conditions. A team of researchers found that a microbial community survives in the area, thought to be a location most akin to Mars due to what's perceived as similar soils.
The bacteria's existence gives hope for the potential of life in the Red Planet, proving that it might be possible for biological activity to occur even in the near absence of moisture, but they weren't just active. According to a team led by Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor at Germany's Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the microbes were reproducing as well.
Is There Life On Mars?
If there can be life in an area where life shouldn't persist, it's possible that Mars could be harboring life too. That's what a new study, published on Feb. 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, seems to suggest, delving into the presence of life in places where it's improbable.
The Atacama Desert gets as low as 8 millimeters of rainfall per year. Due to the near absence of rain, it's become an incredibly dry place, with a crusty layer of salts having built up on the surface. Many others claim to have found bacteria in the desert, but biologists dismiss such findings, arguing that such microbes aren't residents but rather blown in from someplace, and they die.
Checking For Signs Of Life
What Schulze-Makuch's team found was different. The team gathered samples from eight places in the desert over three years. Then to find out what was in those samples, they sequenced all copies of a gene that distinguishes microbial species. They performed a roster of tests — looking for cellular activity, ATP, fatty acids, protein building blocks — to confirm evidence of life.
They found signs of life from the samples, even those collected from the driest areas of the desert. Over the years, the number of bacteria declined, especially with little to no rainfall. By 2017, signs of life were a goner. Surprisingly, some below-ground bacteria managed to stay alive.
Schulze-Makuch believes their data gives a strong indication that there might be microbes on Mars that persist despite the grave conditions.
"This is a direct analogy of what we have in the Atacama Desert. It makes it, in our view, also more likely you have life on Mars and that life can hang in there," he said.
"We can't really say that [microbes] are there now, but our research suggests that it's a possibility, then they could still be there."