Microbial life has just been discovered living in the very Mars-like environment of the Tinto River salt deposits in Spain. The microbes were found living inside of the acidic and ferrous environment of the salt deposits there, which is a close analog of salt deposits that are found on Mars and on the Jovian moon Europa.
With the extremely high level of radiation, very limited moisture, and the extreme temperature and pressure that is present on the surface of Mars, it’s been assumed that finding life there is unlikely. So researchers have been working to identify ‘niches’ on the planet that would be more likely to support life. One of the candidates that have been identified so far are the salt deposits.
“A team from the Center of Astrobiology (CAB, INTA-CSIC) has analysed this kind of environment on Earth: the salt deposits associated to a mineral with sulphur and iron named natrojarosite. It can be found in the Río Tinto basin in Huelva and is very similar to one detected on Mars: jarosite. Its presence reveals the past or present existence of water.”
“The salt deposits are good ‘hosts’ for biological remains and even life itself in extreme circumstances,” as outlined by Felipe Gómez, coauthor of the study published in the journal Planetary and Space Science.
“The reason is that conditions in this environment remain less adverse than those of their surroundings given that they provide protection from radiation for example, and they keep moisture levels higher than outside,” explains the researcher.
“With the help of microscopic techniques and molecular ecology, the team has discovered a film of bacteria and algae living in salt ‘microniches’ invisible to the naked eye. Up to five different morphologies have been found of microorganisms belonging to the Dunaliella and Cyanidium genera.”
“The deposits analysed have been formed by layers each with a width of just a few millimetres. They make up a ‘completely different’ ecosystem to the strange environment of Río Tinto.”
“The precipitated minerals could only have been formed in such an acidic environment like this one and it is still even home to microbial communities in development. In order words, here they find their ideal environment,” says Gómez.
According to the researchers, “the discovery of these protected microniches in one of Mars’ analogue on Earth, like Río Tinto, is an important step in evaluating the habitability potential of the red planet.”
“NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor probe has already detected alluvial fan-shaped salt formations on the Martian surface and scientists believe that that they could exist below the frozen ocean of one of Jupiter’s satellites, Europa.”
“From the astrological point of view, salt deposits are of great importance and should be considered when searching for life on space exploration missions, like the current Curiosity rover mission on Mars,” concludes Gómez. “In fact, salt deposits of astrobiological interest have been found not far from where the NASA rover is.”
“On Earth the CAB team has also studied extreme salt environments in Chott el Djerid Lake (Tunisia) and under the Atacama Desert (Chile).”
Last year, researchers reported the discovery of multiple species of bacteria, fungi, and archaea, surviving in a very Mars like environment at the top of some South American volcanoes. Many recent discoveries have shown that it is certainly possible for life to survive in many of the extreme environments that have been observed on other planets and moons. Whether or not there is life on Mars is something that we may not know for a very long time though. And it is possible that even if life did exist on the planet billions of years ago that there isn’t any evidence of it left.
Source: Plataforma SINC
Image Credits: F. Gómez/CAB