Earth microbes could survive on Mars, study finds

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This illustration provided by NASA depicts the Mars 2020 spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover as it approaches Mars. Perseverance’s $3 billion mission is the first leg in a U.S.-European effort to bring Mars samples to Earth in the next decade. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

(NEXSTAR) – With NASA’s Perseverance Rover landing on Mars last week, the search for life on the Red Planet continues.

But could earthly life survive on Mars?

According to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, microbes from earth could briefly survive in Mars-like conditions.

In September 2019, the researchers launched four fungal and bacterial samples from earth on a large NASA scientific balloon into the middle of the stratosphere, where radiation levels resemble those on the surface of Mars.

Some of the samples survived the trip, suggesting that earthly life may have a chance at survival on the planet.

“If a microbe can hack it up there, above much of the protective ozone layer, it just might be able to survive — however briefly — on a journey to the surface of Mars,” said study co-author David J. Smith, MARSBOx co-principal investigator and researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in a statement.

The research provides insight into the surface of Mars “and gives us clues about how to avoid unintentionally bringing tiny hitchhikers with us to off-world destinations,” said Ralf Moeller, head of the Aerospace Microbiology Research Group at the German Aerospace Center and study co-author, in a statement.

To conduct the study, the researchers secured millions of microbes onto special quartz disks inside aluminum boxes. The boxes were then filled with a mixture of gases that mimic the Martian atmosphere.

Once the microbes reached their destination — 24 miles above the surface of the earth — they were exposed to celestial radiation, extreme temperatures and dry air with a thousand times less pressure than at sea level.

After the specimens returned to earth, the scientists discovered two of the four had survived. One of the survivors included the fungus Aspergillus niger, which is sometimes used to produce antibiotics.

“Spores from the A. niger fungus are incredibly resistant – to heat, harsh chemicals, and other stressors – but no one had ever studied whether they could survive exposed in space or under intense radiation like we see on Mars,” said Marta Cortesão, microbiologist at DLR and co-lead author of the study, in a statement. “The fact that after their MARSBOx flight we could revive them demonstrates they are hearty enough to endure wherever humans go, even off-planet.”

With further research, scientists hope to determine which genes or genetic mutations are responsible for the microbes’ survival.

The team plans to launch a second test flight from Antarctica in the coming years as “these balloon-flown aerobiology experiments allow us to study the microbe’s resiliency in ways that are impossible in the lab,” according to Smith.

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