Microbe found in Ethiopian volcano in 192°F waters hints at life on Mars’ harsh conditions

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A tiny microbe has been discovered that can survive in conditions similar to the extreme environments found on Mars, say scientists.

It lives in one of the hottest places on Earth in supersaturated salt water that are 89°C (192°F) and strongly acidic.

The bacteria is the first evidence of a living species able to survive in the hot springs of the region.

Its similarities to the thermal environments of early Mars could reveal more secrets about Earth and the origins of the Red Planet, experts say.

Dallol hydrothermal field in the Danakil depression in Ethiopia – where the research took place – is the hottest inhabited place in the world and home to a technicoloured landscape of yellows, reds, greens and blues. 

Located at the northern end of the Danakil Depression the area has an average annual temperatures of are 36 to 38°C (97 to 100°F). 

‘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,’ said Dr Dr Felipe Gómez from the Astrobiology Center in Spain.

The unusual geochemistry of Dallol has close parallels to hydrothermal environments found on Mars, including the Gusev Crater, where NASA’s Spirit Mars Exploration Rover landed.

Spirit was robotic rover on Mars, active from 2004 to 2010. 

It was sent to explore Mars and search for signs of past life and found evidence that Mars was once much wetter than it is today.

Dallol’s distinctive ridges were created by rainfall that contains superheated water saturated with salts such as silver chloride, zinc iron sulphide, manganese dioxide and normal rock-salt. 

The volcanic activity heats the water which is enriched in gases from a magma reservoir beneath the volcano. 

A team of researchers 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 were extracted from the hotsprings from the wall of a yellow chimney stack and a blue pool of water surrounding it. 

The salt samples were then transported to analysed using methods including electron microscopy, chemical analysis and DNA sequencing in Spain.

Their analysis identified tiny, spherical structures within the salts that had a high carbon content, confirming the presence of a biological species.

The species was found to be a strain of the Nanohaloarchaeles Order bacteria.  

Researchers wrote in the report: ‘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.’

Barbara Cavalazzi of the University of Bologna, lead author of the review, added: ‘Deep investigation of the characteristics of this amazing site will improve our understanding of the limits of life on Earth an inform our search for life on Mars and elsewhere in the Universe.’

The full report was published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

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