Lichen on Mars

Lichen on Mars
Astrobiology's study of life in the universe has much to say about how humans live sustainably on Earth.

Humans cannot hope to survive life on Mars without plenty of protection from the surface radiation, freezing night temperatures and dust storms on the red planet. So they could be excused for marveling at humble Antarctic lichen that has shown itself capable of going beyond survival and adapting to life in simulated Martian conditions.

The mere feat of surviving temperatures as low as -51 degrees C and enduring a radiation bombardment during a 34-day experiment might seem like an accomplishment by itself. But the lichen, a symbiotic mass of fungi and algae, also proved it could adapt physiologically to living a normal life in such harsh Martian conditions—as long as the lichen lived under "protected" conditions shielded from much of the radiation within "micro-niches" such as cracks in the Martian soil or rocks.

"There were no studies on adaptation to Martian conditions before," said Jean-Pierre de Vera, a scientist at the German Aerospace Center's Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, Germany. "Adaptation is very important to be investigated, because it tells you more about the interactions of life in relation to its environment."

Previous Mars simulation experiments focused on simply measuring the survival of organisms at the end of a given time period. By contrast, de Vera and his group of German and U.S. colleagues measured the lichen's activities throughout the experiment that was detailed in the Sept. issue of the journal Planetary and Space Science. They wanted to see whether the lichen had continued its normal activities rather than simply clinging to life in a dormant state.

Two groups of lichen samples were placed inside a Mars simulation chamber about the size of a big pressure cooker, which itself sat within a fridge about the size of an armoire. That allowed researchers to simulate almost everything about Martian conditions such as atmospheric chemistry, pressure, temperatures, humidity and solar radiation—the lone exceptions being Martian gravity and the added contribution of galactic radiation.

One of the lichen samples in the Mars chamber was exposed to the full brunt of radiation expected on the Martian surface, while the second set of samples received a radiation dose almost 24 times lower to simulate life in the "protected" condition. A third group of lichen samples sat outside the chamber as a control.

Lichen on Mars
Lichen P. chlorophanum on S-MRS Mars-analog substrate. Credit: German Aerospace Center's Institute of Planetary Research

Both lichen sample groups survived their month-long period under Martian conditions. But the heavier dose of radiation from a Xenon lamp simulating the surface radiation conditions kept the unprotected sample group from doing much beyond clinging to survival.

Only the "protected" lichen carried on normal activities such as using photosynthesis to turn sunlight into chemical energy for itself. The protected lichen recovered quickly after an initial "shock" period by adapting well enough to steadily ramp up its photosynthetic activities all the way until the end of the experiment.

"We have shown the first time, that in particular photosynthesis is possible in micro-niches on the surface of Mars," de Vera explained.

The lichen chosen for the experiment, called P. chlorophanum, has proven itself a survival champion even before the Mars simulation. Researchers removed lichen samples for testing from its home atop the rocky Black Ridge in Antarctica's North Victoria Land—a frozen, dry landscape not unlike that of many places on Mars.

Similar lichens have shown they can survive exposure to the vacuum of space as well as space radiation. The past experiments conducted by the European Space Agency aboard Russian FOTON satellites and the International Space Station included de Vera as a co-investigator.

The latest Mars simulation experiment did not try to simulate the Martian dust storms that can blanket the entire planet for a month. But de Vera points out that lichen can survive in a resting state for thousands of years on Earth while covered with dust, snow or ice.

Lichen on Mars
Mars Simulation Faculity with gas batteries providing Mars-analog gas mixtures. Credit: German Aerospace Center's Institute of Planetary Research

Lichen don't exist alone as possible Earth survivors on Mars. Other studies conducted by de Vera have suggested that methane-producing bacteria, known as methanogens, could also manage a Martian existence.

"There are important indices that Earth life can survive, to be metabolically active and adapt physiologically to live on Mars during the time periods which have been investigated," de Vera said.

The experiment's results have huge implications for ongoing robotic missions searching for evidence of life on Mars. First, they confirm that such missions would do well to focus on searching for possible Martian life within the "micro-niche" environments beneath the soil or within rocks protected from surface radiation. Second, they lend hope to the idea that Martian life—if at all similar to Earth life—could have indeed survived up until today.

The 's remarkable adaptation to Martian conditions suggests a third, equally important lesson—it justifies the ongoing caution of NASA and other space agencies in ensuring that Earth organisms don't accidentally hitchhike a ride to Mars. Such planetary protection measures seem likely to continue until the possible day that humanity decides to colonize Mars and perhaps change the planet's landscape in the process.

Explore further

Scientists publish first radiation measurements from the surface of Mars

Journal information: Planetary and Space Science

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Jan 17, 2014
Now we just need to send them over and begin the terraforming!

Jan 17, 2014
Do these 'protected environments' receive sunlight? Are they imagined to be fissures in stones or something more open like a shaded overhang that could receive indirect sunlight?

Jan 17, 2014
Now we just need to send them over and begin the terraforming!

What for? The atmosphere is still almost all CO2.
Even if you could get it to 80/20 nitrogen/oxygen (and where would you get the nitrogen from?) it'd be only 1% as dense as that on Earth - meaning: you'd not be able to breathe it in any case. You'd need a spacesuit just as much as you need it right now.

Jan 17, 2014
@jalmy: black mold-like fungi can survive in your rectum, although I'm not sure why the subject interests you. What else have you found that likes to live up there?

I like the research these guys are doing, because lichen and methanogens have been, to my mind for years, the primary, and likely the only, candidates for the kind of life that could possibly be indigenous to Mars.

Jan 17, 2014
@jalmy: are you saying you want be the first human on Mars (with lichen up yours)? I'm sure NASA would be happy to spend time and money on the study of lichen in your rectum over there.

Jan 17, 2014
@ antialias - Oh no it definitely wouldn't be for me, nor for any progeny up to several generations out. The thing is that it all has to start somewhere. One of the requirements for anything approaching Earthlike conditions on Mars requires a buildup of soil. Lichens are the best hope to start achieving this.

Jan 17, 2014
In other areas we get concern trolling ('don't do that to yourself'), but in space issues we get tax concern trolling ('don't do that to us').

But if the trolls were really concerned over costs and use, they would study up on NASA's work on science return: all science pays, as it is a positive feedback, but you just don't know what results will pay the dividend - but space research pays more than most. It is one of the best investments known to man.

I assume that space is a red flag for the stupid: 'what, those ivory tower - whachamacallit- _sciency_ guys has found a way to stretch their tower into space!? Must-mouth-off!'

Jan 17, 2014
Well said Torbjorn, especially the comment (my paraphrase) that while there is no way to know the final benefits of science research, all research has some benefit and space research has shown itself to have the highest end benefit.

Jan 17, 2014
Studying whether or not lichen could exist in my rectum would be more beneficial and useful to mankind. Stop wasting time and money on Mars!!!!!!!!!
Here is one such rectal-oriented gentleman with proof of lichens on mars.

-Could this be obama_socks? He sounds especially sedentary.

Jan 17, 2014
Imagine if humans ever do find life native to Mars. The environmentalists and PETA will shut down any attempt at research or colonization:

"Save the Whales" will be replaced with "Save the Martians", and there'll be space ships flying along side colony ships, harassing them as much as they can.

Jan 17, 2014
I sincerely hope not Sinister. I would way rather purposefully introduce it, then watch the results and use the data generated to introduce more, along with any changes needed to help it reproduce faster.

Jan 18, 2014
Any chance we could "accidentally" introduce it there? I think it would cause a chain reaction, with life.

Life will never thrive on Mars. For the same reason you'll find no life at all on the Moon. Life might adapt, but it will never flourish. Too much work, too many resources, have to be devoted to mere survival. On Earth, which regions have the greatest variety of life? And conversely?

Jan 18, 2014
Alfie, there is a big difference between Mars and the moon. And never is a long time. I have seen some proposals using technology available right now that could make Mars life self supporting within 300 - 400 years.

What I find interesting about this article is that the most plausible start out by using lichens and mosses to start the process of building soil.

Is it a pipe dream? Probably, at least in the near term. But don't confuse "hard" with "impossible".

Jan 18, 2014
Any chance we could "accidentally" introduce it there? I think it would cause a chain reaction, with life
If it were possible then we probably already have. But life which evolved in that environment will most likely make short work of any earth life struggling to survive there, including quite possibly us.

Any one-way colony efforts need to determine whether there is anything waiting to infect them, which will be difficult.

Jan 18, 2014
life will never thrive on mars
Weve already found life here which could survive on mars.

"But this week, a team from the University of Florida and the Russian Academy of Sciences changed the terraforming rules and have given a greater sense of hope for the future. They published their discovery of several Mars-friendly bacterial strains from one of the harshest regions known: the Siberian permafrost. The bacteria were not novel or previously unseen, instead, they were found to be from the genus, Carnobacterium, better known as meat spoilers as well as fish probiotics."

-And we can tinker with it to make it more useful for colonists, and less dangerous to Martian ecologies if any exist.

Jan 18, 2014
Any chance we could "accidentally" introduce it there? I think it would cause a chain reaction, with life.

A corporation would have to do it without the government's knowledge.

International treaty forbids contaminating the solar system with Earth life, because the hard evolutionists want to find proof that we all came from space jelly.

If they ever find alien life based on DNA and/or RNA, we can expect the scientific community to automatically assume that either Earth life is descended from it, or it is descended from Earth life, or else they both have a common ancestor. All three of those possibilities are fallacious assumptions, but that won't stop your local atheist from pushing them as "settled science".

Jan 18, 2014
If the Sun supposedly grows 10% brighter every Billion years, then by 1 Billion years the solar constant on Earth will rise by 136.5 Watts per meter square. Given the ratio of the constant to surface temperature is about 4.7, this implies an initial surface temperature increase of 29C, not counting albedo changes.

Given the alarmism of the AGW mongers and the belief that 10C is the cut-off point for most Earth life, then that means the Earth has at most another 333 Million years of being able to support life of the sort of present day life or Cretaceous, Triassic, or Jurassic type life. There might be a strip of land in the sub-arctic regions where life remains, but consider that the poles face the Sun constantly during their respective summer, and if the Sun were 3.3% to 10% hotter, it could literally bake the poles during their summer, which might make life in the poles less desirable than life a few degrees south of the arctic or antarctic circle.

Mars would warm up considerably.

Jan 18, 2014
Now some bacteria, lichens, and algae, like the stuff that lives in thermal vents and hot springs could still survive that, but pretty much everything we normally deal with, animals and plants, would die out completely, or be limited to very, very small regions. I doubt it would live even then, because the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere would be so high that the atmospheric pressure would rise, and just breathing the air would difficult for animals and plants.

Jan 18, 2014
Given the alarmism of the AGW mongers and the belief that 10C

take THAT conversation to this thread:
If they ever find alien life based on DNA and/or RNA, ...blah...are fallacious assumptions, but that won't stop your local atheist from pushing them as "settled science"

as for your assumptions, those are garbage. Scientists are the ones making the determinations, not the atheists, for starters...

it will be based upon empirical data
unlike some of your previous comments

Jan 18, 2014
A corporation would have to do it without the government's knowledge.

International treaty forbids contaminating the solar system with Earth life
"Conley emphasized that the Curiosity assembly team and technicians did an excellent job of keeping Curiosity cleaner than any robot that NASA' s sent to Mars since the Viking lander in the 1970s. [-and yet it still sent contaminated equipment...]

"Still, the decision to not keep the drill bits ultra-clean shows the process needs to be fixed, Conley said.

"It would have been better for them to check with me before they opened the box of bits to confirm that it was okay … rather than trying to ask for it afterwards," she said. "In this case it was fine. But for future missions we want to make sure that they ask beforehand."

-The soviets and the US have landed many craft on mars beginning in 1971.

"Although this paper suggests we could be transferring bacteria to martian surface, we don't know for certain yet..."

Jan 18, 2014
Plus there are microorganisms that we cannot detect and thus dont know if they survive decontamination or not.

"Culturing always favors the recovery of organisms that are best able to thrive under laboratory conditions (colloquially "lab weeds"), not necessarily the dominant or most influential organisms in the environment."

Jan 18, 2014
They intentionally destroyed Galileo, a perfectly operational space craft, in order to guarantee they didn't contaminate Europa, because the "scientific community" is convinced finding life on Europa is their "Holy Grail".

New Horizons also seems to have been "designed to fail," since there was originally dispute over whether the power supply would even be enough to make it to Pluto. Unlike the Voyagers, it apparently is not going to be doing science in the outer solar system for decades, as it appears it will run out of power shortly after the fly-by of the Pluto system. At least that's the way it has been presented to us.

Given how long it's taken to get there, I hope every last pixel of photos, and every last bit of data gets published openly, not just a few frames on a scrap-book collection on a NASA web page.

It would be nice for once to see the exact same library of photos and data that they have for a space object, instead of only high notes.

Jan 19, 2014
All this effort to avoid contaminating Mars means they really have NO intention of sending anyone there regardless of the feasibility.

The first time someone steps on the Martian surface it will be contaminated, no matter how stringent the decontamination protocols for the space suit are.

There are just too many variables to contend with beyond that.

It's utterly idiotic therefore to make all efforts to find life depend on such stringent efforts.

If there is life on Mars, it should be easy to distinguish from Earth contamination.

If we can't, making all this effort means we don't realize the obvious that Earth and Martian life share the same origin as probably all life in our solar system would.

Finally to protect microorganisms that can survive mars no matter what form it is most likely far better suited for living there than any Earth life.

The belief otherwise is all based on the (in the process of being proved) false doctrine that invasive species outperform natives.

Jan 20, 2014
All this effort to avoid contaminating Mars means they really have NO intention of sending anyone there regardless of the feasibility.

The first time someone steps on the Martian surface it will be contaminated, no matter how stringent the decontamination protocols for the space suit are.

That is not entirely true. NASA wants to attempt as much decontamination as possible prior to any human contact in the event that there may be life there to discover.

If there is that possibility, we could run into the issue of mis-identifying that life as things from Mars when they really might be things from Earth. Being able to ID the difference would most likely require a human.

Yes, there is the issue of whether or not microbes from here could out-compete life forms from Mars, but that threat would always be there.

Jan 20, 2014
Stop wasting time and money on Mars!!!!!!!!!

If we want to know anything about places besides Earth, then we must start somewhere. Since we know more about Mars than any other place where life as we know it could exist (or could have existed in the past) it makes sense to start experimenting with Mars simulations. With what we might learn from Mars experiments, we might be able make some better assumptions about other places, like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

It's even possible that we might learn things about life here on Earth by studying how life might behave in environments that aren't like Earth. Such things could lead to advancements in medicine or agriculture, for example.

The trick or catch 22 is that you never know what you'll find until you look, and looking in places you haven't looked before is the only way to find things you haven't found already (insert rectum jokes here, lol).

Jan 20, 2014
As for contamination, I wouldn't jump to too many conclusions regarding how hard it is to prevent. Micro-organisms are generally not very good at moving around on their own, and they go dormant or die when the food runs out. Even if people go there, we will still have a reasonable expectation of getting pristine samples before we contaminate it too much. The handling of the samples after they are taken from the wild is a much greater concern really.

As for deliberately seeding Mars with micro-organisms, I would be cautious of that. What if they mutate to adapt, and then thrive (as you probably hope they will)? Can you predict how organisms might change in response to the Mars environment? It is notoriously easy to wipe out isolated human settlements, as Earth history already shows us.

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