Scientist’s discovery in Atacama desert could help search for life on Mars | World | News

May 3, 2024
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Scientists have made a huge discovery in the Atamaca desert which could help in the search for life in space.

The 105,000 square desert in Chile has extremely harsh conditions, with NASA able to perform specific experiments there due to it being “Mars-like”.

Despite being one of the driest places on earth, the Atacama Desert is still home to viable microbes, found by a research team who travelled there in 2018.

Lucas Horstmann, a researcher in the team, said they have possible implications for desert biodiversity and the search for life on Mars.

Researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, TU Berlin, and the University of Antofagasta wanted to see if microscopic organisms could live in its deep soils.

Soil samples were taken from the desert and analysed to extract the DNA from active cells. They published their findings last week in the journal PNAS Nexus.

“This is opening a completely new habitat for microorganisms that was previously unknown,” said Horstmann, 

He added that usually at least up to 1m, microbial life ceases due to “harsh conditions and the limited water supply”. But after 2m, they encountered a microbial community which was “really surprising”.

This diverse community may be present in other deserts on Earth too, which would have “implications on global biodiversity of microorganisms and soil,” added Horstmann.

For Horstmann, the research provides “further evidence that microorganisms can inhabit niches which are extreme and isolated where they can thrive”.

“The subsurface of Mars is often proposed to be a habitat for microbes, and this is what we exactly see in this desert here on Earth,” he said.

“The conditions are not as extreme as on Mars, but it’s the same pattern. There are harsh conditions on the surface, no water, and high UV radiation, and then you go deeper and find gypsum also present on Mars,” said Horstmann.

The study “pushes the envelope for environmental tolerance” to conditions that are closer to what may have existed on Mars today, according to University of Cambridge professor Oliver Shorttle, who works in the astronomy and earth sciences departments.

Shorttle, who was not involved in the study, added the research looks “at life that’s potentially beginning to rely on other sources of energy,” such as what is in sediments.

“It’s increasing the range of environments in which life demonstrates it’s capable of finding a mechanism to sustain itself,” he added.



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