Scientists find microbes in lava tube living in conditions like those on Mars

Dec 15, 2011
Microbes from within this lava tube on Newberry Crater in Oregon were cultured under conditions like those on Mars. (Photo by Amy Smith, Oregon State University)

(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of scientists from Oregon has collected microbes from ice within a lava tube in the Cascade Mountains and found that they thrive in cold, Mars-like conditions.

The microbes tolerate temperatures near freezing and low levels of oxygen, and they can grow in the absence of organic food. Under these conditions their metabolism is driven by the oxidation of iron from olivine, a common volcanic mineral found in the rocks of the lava tube. These factors make the microbes capable of living in the subsurface of and other , the scientists say.

The findings, supported by a grant from the (), are detailed in the journal Astrobiology.

"This microbe is from one of the most common genera of bacteria on Earth," said Amy Smith, a doctoral student at Oregon State University and one of the authors of the study. "You can find its cousins in , on your skin, at the bottom of the ocean and just about anywhere. What is different, in this case, is its unique qualities that allow it to grow in Mars-like conditions."

In a laboratory setting at and with normal , the scientists demonstrated that the microbes can consume organic material (sugar). But when the researchers removed the , reduced the temperature to near-freezing, and lowered the oxygen levels, the microbes began to use the iron within olivine – a common silicate material found in volcanic rocks on Earth and on Mars – as its energy source.

"This reaction involving a common mineral from volcanic rocks just hasn't been documented before," said Martin Fisk, a professor in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and an author on the study. "In directly exposed to air and at warmer temperatures, the oxygen in the atmosphere oxidizes the iron before the microbes can use it. But in the lava tube, where the bacteria are covered in ice and thus sheltered from the atmosphere, they out-compete the oxygen for the iron.

"By mimicking those conditions, we got the microbes to repeat that behavior in the laboratory," Fisk added.

The microbes were collected from a lava tube near Newberry Crater in Oregon's Cascades Mountains, at an elevation of about 5,000 feet. They were within the ice on rocks some 100 feet inside the lava tube, in a low-oxygen, near-freezing environment. Scientists, including Fisk, have said that the subsurface of Mars could have similar conditions and harbor bacteria.

In fact, Fisk has examined a meteorite originating from Mars that contained tracks – which could indicate consumption by microbes – though no living material was discovered. Similar tracks were found on the rocks from the Newberry Crater lava tube, he said.

"Conditions in the lava tube are not as harsh as on Mars," Fisk said. "On Mars, temperatures rarely get to the freezing point, oxygen levels are lower and at the surface, liquid water is not present. But water is hypothesized to be present in the warmer subsurface of Mars. Although this study does not exactly duplicate what you would find on Mars, it does show that bacteria can live in similar conditions.

"We know from direct examination, as well as satellite imagery, that olivine is in Martian rocks," Fisk added. "And now we know that olivine can sustain microbial life."

The idea for exploring the lava tube came from Radu Popa, an assistant professor at Portland State University and lead author on the paper. Popa used to explore caves in his native Romania and was familiar with the environmental conditions. Because lava tubes are a sheltered environment and exist on both Earth and Mars, Popa proposed the idea of studying from them to see if life may exist – or could have existed – on the Red Planet.

"When temperatures and atmospheric pressure on Mars are higher, as they have been in the past, ecosystems based on this type of bacteria could flourish," Popa said. "The fingerprints left by such bacteria on mineral surfaces can be used by scientists as tools to analyze whether life ever existed on Mars."

Explore further: Suddenly, the sun is eerily quiet: Where did the sunspots go?

More information: Olivine-Respiring Bacteria Isolated from the Rock-Ice Interface in a Lava-Tube Cave, a Mars Analogue Environment, hdl.handle.net/1957/25386

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User comments : 13

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deatopmg
3.6 / 5 (8) Dec 15, 2011
"Conditions in the lava tube are not as harsh as on Mars," Fisk said. "On Mars, temperatures rarely get to the freezing point, oxygen levels are lower and at the surface, liquid water is not present...."

One has to differentiate soil and atmospheric temperatures. Soil gets as high as 20 deg C. Liquid water, mud, and wet sticky soil can be seen in very many photo's and the atmosphere is nearly saturated w/ water vapor, albeit at a much lower temp. than the soil.

Knowing what we know about the tenacity of life here on Earth, if life did arise (or arrive) on Mars in the distant past it is very likely still there.
Eikka
3.8 / 5 (9) Dec 15, 2011
The difference between Mars and the lava tubes is, that there are organic chemicals around for the bacteria to use on earth, but none on Mars.

They can't live on just iron, even though they can derive energy of it.
MPJ
2.3 / 5 (4) Dec 15, 2011
Sounds exactly like the kind of microbe which metabolism has been picked up by the 1976 Viking LR life detection experiments: http://gillevin.com/mars.htm
PoppaJ
1.6 / 5 (9) Dec 15, 2011
I can't believe I just read this. Mars is colder than zero almost always. It has little to no magnetic field which means little to no activity in the core which means the sub surface is not going to be warmer. I looked at the same images as tthe rest of the world and agree with many of the sceptics that every single "recent" water like feature can be explained by and is probably from wind.
Telekinetic
3.5 / 5 (6) Dec 15, 2011
If radiodurans can survive absurdly high levels of radiation here on earth that would kill most organisms, then I have no doubt that there are other planets with conditions no more unkind than nuclear radiation.
Thadieus
Dec 15, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.2 / 5 (10) Dec 15, 2011
I can't believe I just read this. Mars is colder than zero almost always. It has little to no magnetic field which means little to no activity in the core which means the sub surface is not going to be warmer. I looked at the same images as tthe rest of the world and agree with many of the sceptics that every single "recent" water like feature can be explained by and is probably from wind.
Maybe you should do a little research to find out why these scientists, who after all know far more about the subject than you, believe that these conditions exist? I bet there are some things you are not aware of which, if you knew about them like the scientists, might change your opinion.
_nigmatic10
2 / 5 (4) Dec 16, 2011
eventually, we will find life on mars and it will have an uncanny resemblance to life on earth... because we put it there.
Isaacsname
2 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2011
Send a care package to Mars, add hot water, mix thoroughly, wait 100 years.

*ding* Soup's on !
MPJ
2.3 / 5 (4) Dec 16, 2011
eventually, we will find life on mars and it will have an uncanny resemblance to life on earth... because we put it there.


Maybe it just the other way around or even both way - the Earth has been seeded by Martian life and vice versa.

A darwinian evolution of those extremely radiation resistant microbes which has been found on Earth cant be easily explained as the Earth just got no such high radiation environments to put a selection pressure to develop such feature. Mars got it! :-)
http://biospace.n...5-34.pdf
Nanobanano
1 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2011

A darwinian evolution of those extremely radiation resistant microbes which has been found on Earth cant be easily explained as the Earth just got no such high radiation environments to put a selection pressure to develop such feature. Mars got it! :-)
http://biospace.n...5-34.pdf


"Selection" cannot develop anything.

Remove all words that don't have an "A".

Apple
Orange
Cherry
Pickle

ok, that leaves:

Apple
Orange

Well, whatdaya know, Apple and Orange "survived" the selction process but nothing new was "developed".

TheGhostofOtto1923
3.2 / 5 (5) Dec 16, 2011
Well nanoQC only apples and oranges are left over to conceive mangos you brainless religionist.
wiyosaya
5 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2011

A darwinian evolution of those extremely radiation resistant microbes which has been found on Earth cant be easily explained as the Earth just got no such high radiation environments to put a selection pressure to develop such feature. Mars got it! :-)
http://biospace.n...5-34.pdf


"Selection" cannot develop anything.

Remove all words that don't have an "A".

Apple
Orange
Cherry
Pickle

ok, that leaves:

Apple
Orange

Well, whatdaya know, Apple and Orange "survived" the selction process but nothing new was "developed".


IMHO, it is difficult to believe that an intelligent entity posted this. A faux argument for a faux subject. Someone sure had success in brainwashing in this case.
Jotaf
5 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2011
"Selection" cannot develop anything.


No, but "Variability plus Selection" can.

I suggest you read up on Genetic Algorithms and play a bit with them. Don't be fooled, though; your PC running for a few hours probably doesn't have the computational power of a whole planet's Biosphere over a few eons.
MarkyMark
Dec 17, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.