A hardy microbe has been discovered capable of surviving conditions similar to the extreme environments found on Mars. The organism thrives in one of the hottest places on the planet in supersaturated salt water that is 89C (192F) and strongly acidic. And the find offers the first evidence of a species surviving in the hot springs of the Ethiopian region. The region’s similarities to the environment of early Mars will reveal more secrets about Earth and the origins of the Red Planet, scientists say.
The groundbreaking research took place in Ethiopia’s Dallol hydrothermal field in the Danakil depression, believed to be the hottest inhabited place in the world.
Found at the northern edge of the Danakil Depression the surreally coloured area boasts brutal average annual temperatures of 38C (100F).
Dr Felipe Gómez, of Spain’s Astrobiology Centre, said: “This is an exotic, multi-extreme environment, with organisms that need to love high temperature, high salt content and very low pH in order to survive.”
Dallol’s unusual geochemistry has close parallels to the hydrothermal environments on Mars, including the Gusev Crater, explored by NASA’s Spirit Mars rover.
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The US space agency’s Spirit was robotic rover on Mars, active from 2004 to 2010.
NASA sent Spirit to explore Mars and search for signs of ancient alien life, which was boasted when it unearthed evidence that Mars was once much wetter.
The Dallol Depression’s distinctive alien landscape was formed by rainfall saturated with salts including zinc iron sulphide, manganese dioxide and silver chloride.
And the Ethiopia’s volcanic activity heats the water enriched in gases emitted from an enormous magma reservoir beneath the region.
Scientists collected samples from the Dallol volcano from a thin layers of salt deposits that came from supersaturated water with the extremely acidic pH of 0.25.
These samples were taken from the wall of a yellow chimney stack and a blue pool of water surrounding it.
And they were analysed using an array of methods including electron microscopy, chemical analysis and DNA sequencing.
This allowed scientists to identify microscopic, spherical structures within the salts that had a high carbon content, confirming the presence of a biological species.
The microbes was discovered to be a previously undiscovered strain of the Nanohaloarchaeles Order bacteria.
The researchers wrote: “The results from this study suggest the microorganisms can survive, and potential live, within this extreme environment, which has implications for understanding the limits of habitability on Earth and on early Mars.”
Professor Barbara Cavalazzi of the University of Bologna, the study’s lead author, said: “Deep investigation of the characteristics of this amazing site will improve our understanding of the limits of life on Earth and inform our search for life on Mars and elsewhere in the universe.”