Exobiology: a glimpse of life on Mars in Canada?

Lots of salt. Cold. And almost no oxygen. Extreme conditions that resemble the characteristics of certain Martian regions. However, they are those of a very earthly source. A source on the surface of which researchers have just discovered living microbes, which could therefore just as well… have developed on Mars!

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Perseverance, this is how NASA has decided to name the rover it will send to Mars in the summer of 2020. A rover from which researchers expect a lot. He will be the first to collect rock samples to be brought back to Earth. Objective: to find traces of microbial life.

Nunavut is the territory that extends the most in northern canada. And somewhere in Nunavut, there is a spring that could almost be described as otherworldly. Lost Hammer Spring, it is the coldest source known to date on our Earth. Its water crosses 600 meters of permafrost before reaching the surface. Its temperature never exceeds 0°C. However, it does not freeze. Because Lost Hammer Spring is also the water source the saltiest known source on our planet. A salinity of around 24%. Far from the 3.5% of the Mediterranean Sea, but also from the 34% of the dead Sea.

And if scientists evoke a source from another world, it is because these extreme conditions remind them of those which exist in certain regions of Mars, in particular. Especially since Lost Hammer Spring also contains almost nooxygen. A unique opportunity for researchers to better understand the type of life forms that could exist on the Red Planet.

Studies had already revealed the possibility for certain microbes to develop in such extreme environments. But today, McGill University researchers (Canada) report having discovered, in sediment taken from the side of Lost Hammer Spring, microbes never observed before. And more importantly, live, active microbes.

Discover the secret of the survival of these microbes

It was not easy. Because the salinity of the water doesn’t just make life difficult. It also complicates the work of researchers. They still managed to extract a hundred of these microorganisms. To isolate and extract DNA to rebuild their genome using state-of-the-art tools. What to understand how microbes can survive in this extreme environment.

“The microbes in Lost Hammer Spring are amazing. They don’t need organic matter or oxygen to live.says Lyle Whyte, researcher, in a press release from McGill University. “They survive by eating simple inorganic compounds such as methane, sulphidessulphates, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. »

The result is exciting. Because all these ingredients are also available on Mars. But to find out if such micro-organisms could have existed on the red planet – and may still exist – researchers will have to go a little further. Cultivate these microbes – especially the most active of them – to understand why and how they thrive in extreme environments. And perhaps also, to help interpret the amazing isotopes of sulfur and carbon discovered in the Gale crater by the rover of the NasaCuriosity.

While waiting to find out more, the European Space Agency (ESA) has already decided to use the sediment samples collected near Lost Hammer Spring to test the life detection capabilities of the instruments to be carried on board its ExoMars mission.

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