Earth organisms survive under Martian conditions

May 19, 2014
Earth organisms survive under Martian conditions
Methanogens contained in these test tubes, which also contained growth nutrients, sand and water, survived when subjected to Martian freeze-thaw cycles at the University of Arkansas.

(Phys.org) —New research suggests that methanogens—among the simplest and oldest organisms on Earth—could survive on Mars.

Methanogens, microorganisms in the domain Archaea, use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide as their carbon source, to metabolize and produce methane, also known as natural gas. Methanogens live in swamps and marshes, but can also be found in the gut of cattle, termites and other herbivores as well as in dead and decaying matter.

Methanogens are anaerobic, so they they don't require require oxygen. They don't require organic nutrients and are non-photosynthetic, indicating they could exist in sub-surface environments and therefore are ideal candidates for life on Mars.

Rebecca Mickol, a doctoral student in space and planetary sciences at the University of Arkansas, subjected two of methanogens to Martian conditions: Methanothermobacter wolfeii and Methanobacterium formicicum. Both species survived the Martian freeze-thaw cycles that Mickol replicated in her experiments.

The species were tested for their ability to withstand Martian freeze-thaw cycles that are below the organisms' ideal growth temperatures: 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) for M. formicicum and 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit) for M. wolfeii.

"The surface temperature on Mars varies widely, often ranging between minus 90 degrees Celsius and 27 degrees Celsius over one Martian day," Mickol said. "If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range. The survival of these two methanogen species exposed to long-term freeze/thaw cycles suggests methanogens could potentially inhabit the subsurface of Mars."

Mickol conducted the study with Timothy Kral, professor of biological sciences in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences and lead scientist on the project. She is presenting her work at the 2014 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, being held May 17-20 in Boston.

The two species were selected because one is a hyperthermophile, meaning it thrives under extremely hot temperatures, and the other is a thermophile, which thrives under warm temperatures.

"The low temperature on Mars inhibited their growth, but they survived," Mickol said. "Once they got back to a warm temperature, they were able to grow and metabolize again. I wanted to see if these would kill them, or if they were able to survive and adapt."

Since the 1990s, Kral has been studying methanogens and examining their ability to survive on Mars. In 2004, scientists discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere, and immediately the question of the source became an important one.

"When they made that discovery, we were really excited because you ask the question 'What's the source of that methane?'" Kral said. "One possibility would be ."

Explore further: Lichen on Mars

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User comments : 17

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verkle
1.4 / 5 (11) May 19, 2014
Finding an organism that could just possibly survive on Mars under the most ideal conditions is completely unrelated to actual life on Mars (which we all know doesn't exist). Trying to make such a connection is a farce.

We should stop wasting billions and billions of dollars every year trying to find extraterrestrial life. It exists, but not in the form that some scientists think.

supamark23
4.4 / 5 (7) May 19, 2014
Finding an organism that could just possibly survive on Mars under the most ideal conditions is completely unrelated to actual life on Mars (which we all know doesn't exist). Trying to make such a connection is a farce.

We should stop wasting billions and billions of dollars every year trying to find extraterrestrial life. It exists, but not in the form that some scientists think.



I'd ask if you'd considered that we'll eventually be colonizing Mars and how it's important to know what will/won't survive there, but we both know you don't have the intellectual capacity to.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
4.4 / 5 (7) May 19, 2014
@verkle: We don't know whether life exists (or existed) on Mars, and that is large part of the reason why we go there. Astrobiology is not costing "billions and billions of dollars every year" (how many?).

You have no references for your claims, because you are making it up as you go. We should stop wasting billions and billions of nanoseconds every year trying to find verkle's intelligence.
Mimath224
5 / 5 (2) May 19, 2014
Another point is that microorganisms are important for some plant life. From the photos I've seen Mars is barren and microorganisms that could survive might help to change that, at least under special controlled conditions. I am sure we will have at least some teams on Mars within the next few decades and they will need all the help they can get.
Sinister1812
5 / 5 (1) May 19, 2014
I really don't think there is life there. Thing is, they could be drilling for it, searching under rocks, taking soil samples. Nothing has turned up. We do have a lot of nice panorama photos though!
jsdarkdestruction
5 / 5 (4) May 20, 2014
"Finding an organism that could just possibly survive on Mars under the most ideal conditions is completely unrelated to actual life on Mars"
You could not possibley be more wrong. I'd explain but we both know your beliefs are already predetermined based on your young earth creationist worldview and don't allow change.
"which we all know doesn't exist"
if by we you mean you and all your young earth creationist buddies I guess. the rest of us are objective enough to realize we just don't know yet and more evidence is required still.
"Trying to make such a connection is a farce."
you have no idea what you are talking about mr. I use the bible as a science textbook that is absolute truth even when shown to be wrong.

Sinister1812
not rated yet May 20, 2014
They should just bring Earth life to Mars. There are places where lichen would survive, I'm sure of it.
Mimath224
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2014
@Sinister1812

They should just bring Earth life to Mars. There are places where lichen would survive, I'm sure of it.

Reads like you are already there Ha! You mean 'take...' I think?
I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was the case. However, The journey would be difficult enough but survive that and they would have a fighting chance. Human beings thrive on chance, challenge and exploration...Mars would be good for all three..Sic itur ad astra
Mimath224
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2014
I notice in the press recenetly that SpaceX's vision for a Mars exploration calls for a rocket much bigger than the Falcon and would use a methane-based propulsion system. Maybe they intend to use the methanogens for refuel...sorry about that, just couldn't resist it Ha!
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) May 20, 2014
"If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range.

Why do they always only assume life is on the surface? They even say that these could survive in subsurface environments in the article.

The further down you go the less temperature swings there are. So the test for survivability under surface temperature swings is unneceesarily harsh.
Rute
not rated yet May 20, 2014
Why do they always only assume life is on the surface? They even say that these could survive in subsurface environments in the article.

The further down you go the less temperature swings there are. So the test for survivability under surface temperature swings is unneceesarily harsh.


Yeah, that's what I've been wondering too. These days it is known that the Earth's crust is teeming with microbial life, and considering that the Martian crust doesn't necessarily differ from Earth's to such a large degree as does the surface environment, I would guess the crust is the most probable place to find life on Mars.

Some research (Francis McCubbin et al.) even suggests that there is considerable amount of hydrated minerals within the Martian crust and if there's free water, it might exist as liquid in the high pressure and balmy temperature of the deep, whereas on the surface of Mars water can only exist in gaseous or solid state which is not very good thing for life.
Sinister1812
1 / 5 (2) May 20, 2014
If life survives in the crust, why hasn't it made its way to the surface and formed ecosystems there? On earth, life started in the oceans and made its way onto land.
Rute
5 / 5 (4) May 20, 2014
If life survives in the crust, why hasn't it made its way to the surface and formed ecosystems there? On earth, life started in the oceans and made its way onto land.


I guess there are multiple reasons, including the lack of magnetosphere that would protect from solar wind, lack of shield for intense UV, X-ray and cosmic radiation, and weak gravity that is unable to hold a decent atmosphere and makes it impossible to have liquid water on surface.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) May 20, 2014
why hasn't it made its way to the surface and formed ecosystems there?

Why should it?
If something essential to life is missing on the surface (nutrients, water, ...) then life won't go there.

On earth, life started in the oceans and made its way onto land.

It is by no means certain that life started in the oceans. It may have started deep underground with bacteria deriving energy from radiation processes (like those found in some deep mines) and then moved up.
(Panspermia is also not ruled out entirely, yet)
Earth's surface is comparatively hospitable to life - having water in all phases, so it's no wonder life moved there eventually.
Sinister1812
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2014
Thanks guys, interesting. Also Earth wasn't always hospitable. And life created O2 in the atmosphere. Still, the 'life on Mars' question is unanswered.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2014
Still, the 'life on Mars' question is unanswered.

...at least until we dig down. And I mean REALLY dig down (a few kilometers or so)
But before that we should look at the icecaps and any other stable/protected niches (old volcanic tunnels, etc. )

Spreading Earth lichens on Mars might be a fun science experiment- but there's really not much use in it. It certainly isn't going to 'terraform' Mars.
Rustybolts
5 / 5 (1) May 24, 2014
Knew my wife was from mars...just knew it!

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