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By Andrew Follett
Some of the simplest and most ancient microbes on Earth could actually survive on Mars, according to a new study published Monday by scientists at the University of Arkansas.
The study found microbes known as methanogens could survive in a simulated Mars-like environment with extremely low air pressure. Methanogens do not require oxygen to live, relying instead on hydrogen and carbon dioxide which are found on Mars.
Methanogens are among the simplest and most ancient organisms on Earth and also do not need photosynthesis to live. This means they could be ideal candidates for life on Mars, as they could live shielded from harsh levels of ultraviolet radiation on the Red Planet.
Mars today is cold and dry, but it likely had rivers, lakes and seas covering it billions of years ago which would be a great environment for bacterial life. As there is life virtually wherever there is liquid water on Earth, researchers think life may have evolved on Mars when it was wet and could even survive today.
“In all the environments we find here on Earth, there is some sort of microorganism in almost all of them,” Dr. Rebecca Mickol, an astrobiologist at the University of Arkansas and the lead author of the study, said in a press statement. “It’s hard to believe there aren’t other organisms out there on other planets or moons as well.”
Other research indicates that if life did develop on Mars in the distant past, it would likely be relatively primitive like the methanogens, just as life on Earth was during the same time period.
The earliest potential evidence of life on Earth is 3.5 billion years old, but evidence of potential life from before that period has mostly been destroyed by plate tectonics. Primitive life could have been most suited to survive on Mars. The first multi-cellular animals did not appear on Earth until about 600 million years ago and were not diversified until roughly 542 million years ago in the Cambrian explosion.
Other research from NASA’s Curiosity rover determined there are craters on Mars today that were probably a habitable lake-and-stream system billions of years ago and included fresh neutral-pH water. Additionally, the Mars rover found complex minerals that were probably created in a relatively habitable environment.
These discoveries mean that parts of Mars were probably hospitable to microbial life for quite some time and may still be.
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