Life On Mars: Does Arctic Bacteria Discovery Indicate Possible Life In Space?

By iScienceTimes Staff on May 24, 2013 4:49 PM EDT

Life On Mars
Researchers think that Arctic bacteria discovered in remote Canadian permafrost may be a clue that life on Mars is possible. (Photo: NASA)

Researchers have discovered a microbe in the Canadian high Arctic that may be a clue into the possibility of life on Mars.

The newly bacterium, Planococcus halocryophilus OR1, was discovered in permafrost on Ellesmere Island, part of the most northerly area of Canada. The organism thrives at just 5 degrees Fahrenheit -- meaning it could likely survive on Mars.

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"We believe that this bacterium lives in very thin veins of very salty water," said Lyle Whyte, professor at McGill University and lead researcher, in a statement. "The salt in the permafrost brine veins keeps the water from freezing at the ambient permafrost temperature...creating a habitable but very harsh environment." He added, "It's not the easiest place to survive but this organism is capable of remaining active (i.e. breathing) to at least [-13 degrees Fahrenheit.]"

The bacteria that was found in the permafrost is thriving in an area that scientists thought was totally inhospitable to life of any kind. The researchers are not yet sure how the microbes have adapted to such extreme cold, but say that further studies might help discover how microbes could possibly live and reproduce at such temperatures.

Whyte and his team are interested in studying bacteria in inhospitable conditions to gain insight into whether similar cold weather microbes could possibly exist on places like Mars and Saturn's moon Enceladus.  

"On Mars, we know there are permafrost environments, and we're pretty sure now that there are very cold salty environments as well," Whyte said, "which make them ideal targets for looking for similar types of life."

The permafrost core, from which Whyte and his team derived between 200 and 300 strains of bacteria, came from NASA. In 2004, the space agency had extracted the core, which has been frozen for around 6,000 years, as part of a robotic drilling project, techniques that they plan to use on Mars.

Permafrost drilling is very difficult, so to be handed this gift from NASA was thrilling to Whyte.

"For me, this stuff was gold," Whyte said.

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