Microbes Found That Survive on the by-Products of Radioactive Decay

The rocks seen here along the shoreline of Lake Salda in Turkey were formed over time by microbes that trap minerals and sediments in the water. These so-called microbialites were once a major form of life on Earth and provide some of the oldest known fossilized records of life on our planet. NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance mission will search for signs of ancient life on the Martian surface. Studying these microbial fossils on Earth has helped scientists prepare for the mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition to investigating the big questions about life in our Universe (origins, evolution, distribution, etc.), one of the chief aims of astrobiologists is to characterize extraterrestrial environments to determine if life could exist there. However, there are still unresolved questions about the range of conditions under which life can survive and thrive. Placing better constraints on this will help astrobiologists search for life beyond Earth.

To get a better understanding of how ecosystems can exist beneath the ocean floor (so far from the Sun) a team of researchers led by the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) conducted a study on microbes in ancient seafloor sediment. What they found, to their surprise, was that these lifeforms are sustained primarily by chemicals created by the natural irradiation of water molecules.

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Some Earth Life Could Already Survive on Mars

Mars’ surface is a harsh environment for life.  But life on Earth is notoriously resilient as well.  No one is quite sure yet how microbes from Earth would fare on the Martian surface.  However, the impact of a potential transmigration of microbes to the red planet could be immense.  Not only could it skew any findings of potential real Martian life we might find, it could also completely disrupt any nascent biosphere that Mars might have.  

To understand whether that much disruption is really possible, first we must understand whether any Earthly life can survive on Mars itself.  According to a new study recently published in Frontiers in Microbiology, the answer to that is yes.

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