Scientists have discovered unique microbes living deep in the dry, arid soil of the Atacama Desert, giving us an intimate glimpse into how life may have once thrived on Mars. While the microbes in question are, in fact, Earthlings by designation, the environment in which they evolve and develop shares many similarities with the great red planet in the sky.
• Scientists discovered a long list of microbes lurking just under the surface of the soil – hardy bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and amoebas. These tiny organisms not only survive, but thrive in harsh environments that would kill nearly all other species.
• The Chilean desert shares many similarities with Mars under the surface. It’s high in salt, extremely dry, and constantly pounded by winds that grind the soil down to a fine powder. The Atacama sees little to no precipitation and thus, is home to few plants and animals.
• Most of Atacama’s unique microbes resist radiation, dehydration, extreme temperatures and even exceptionally high levels of salt. For comparison, a human constantly exposed to those environmental factors would most likely struggle to survive at all. Tiny organisms – 1, Humans – 0.
• These microbes may thrive in harsh environments, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require water at all. On the contrary; rare rainfall in the desert makes them “come alive” and replicate at an exceedingly rapid rate. When conditions become too extreme, they simply inactivate (a more complex form of hibernation) until conditions improve.
• These findings are interesting because they may tell us exactly how life thrived on Mars in the first place. We know that Mars likely has ice deposits deep within its soil; the presence of ice means water existed at one point. It’s possible that similar microbes may be living deep under the ground on Mars even now.
• Determining whether life exists on Mars also gives us the opportunity to explore future colonization. Understanding how to interface with such environments will provide us with critical survival clues.