Atacama Desert Offers Insights Into Microbial Life On Mars

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Searching for life on other planets has been the focus of much of the research of the universe. Hoping to get a better understanding of how microbes could survive in extreme environments, scientists are studying similar environments on Earth. A group of scientists conducted a study in the Atacama Desert, concluding that microbial life on Mars could thrive by being transferred across the planet through wind that transports dust particles.

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile has conditions that are familiar and analog to those on the Red Planet. A group of scientists has found that dust particles that are transferred through Martian winds could make life thrive, as on Earth, if microbial life existed on Mars. Their findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

A group led by Armando Azua-Bustos wanted to learn whether microbial life present in the Atacama Desert could move across the desert through dust particles transferred through wind. The team wanted to find from where these microorganisms come from, giving insight into how microbial life on Mars could survive in extreme environments, and possibly leading to discovery of extraterrestrial life.

The team found 23 bacterial and eight fungal species, locating them across three sampling sites in two regions of the Atacama desert, traversing the hyperarid core, which is an arid region rich in saline and oxidizing soils with high UV radiation. The team found that only three of the species were shared across regions, suggesting that the different airborne ecosystems across the desert may affect the traversal of microbes.

“Bacterial and fungal species identified from the samples included Oceanobacillus oncorhynchi, a bacterium first described in aquatic environments, and Bacillus simplex, which originates from plants,” it says in a statement.

According to these observations, scientists concluded that the microbes could traverse to the hyperarid core starting from the Pacific Ocean as well as from the coastal range of the desert.

The authors also found another interesting observation. They found that microbial cells that would be found in the morning would arrive from closer locations. However, in the afternoon, marine aerosols and microbial life traveling on dust particles was brought by wind from remote locations.

Based on those observations, scientists concluded that microbial life was more efficient at traversal as a result of drier air and land and stronger UV radiation from the sun, given that longer distances were traversed later in the day.

The Atacama, the driest and the most UV irradiated desert on Earth, helped scientists find out that microbial life on Mars could thrive thanks to these movements in the analog conditions of Martian deserts and wind seasons, as well as UV radiation which is a result of the extremely thin atmosphere that the planet boasts.

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