Researchers at the Centre of Astrobiology have made a discovery that is worthy of Curiosity’s full attention. They recently identified microorganisms that live inside salt deposits in the Mars-like environment of the Tinto River in Huelva, Spain. Researchers believe that the conditions of these salt deposits are similar to those on Mars and Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
Radiation, lack of moisture and extreme temperature and pressure on the surface of the Red Planet make it a tough environment for the development of life, say scientists. Mars’ salt deposits are one of the locations where scientists think life might have a shot at developing
Researchers have examined a Mars-like environment on Earth: The salt deposits linked to a mineral with sulphur and iron named natrojarosite. Natrojarosite can be found in the Tinto River in Huelva and is a lot like the one discovered on Mars: Jarosite. Its presence suggests the past or present existence of water, according to researchers.
“The salt deposits are good ‘hosts’ for biological remains and even life itself in extreme circumstances,” says coauthor Felipe Gómez. “The reason is that conditions in this environment remain less adverse than those of their surroundings given that they provide protection from radiation for example, and they keep moisture levels higher than outside.”
Using microscope techniques and molecular ecology, the team has found a film of bacteria and algae living in salt “microniches” unable to be seen by the naked eye. As many as five different morphologies have been located of microorganisms belonging to the Dunaliella and Cyanidium genera.
The deposits examined have been formed by layers each with a width of just a few millimeters.
“The precipitated minerals could only have been formed in such an acidic environment like this one and it is still even home to microbial communities in development. In order words, here they find their ideal environment,” adds Gómez.
Researchers believe that the discovery of bacteria in the Mars-like environment in the Tinto River is a crucial part of determining the habitability potential of Mars.
NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor probe has already located alluvial fan-shaped salt formations on the Red Planet surface and scientists think that they exist below the frozen ocean of Europa as well.
“From the astrological point of view, salt deposits are of great importance and should be considered when searching for life on space exploration missions, like the current Curiosity rover mission on Mars,” says Gómez.
This finding comes as NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity explores Gale Crater for evidence that Mars may have once had the right conditions for microbial life.
The study’s findings were recently published in the journal Planetary and Space Science.