Clues to Life on Mars Found on Earth

Posted December 16th, 2011 at 11:30 pm (UTC+0)

Microbes from within this lava tube on Newberry Crater in Oregon were cultured under conditions like those on Mars. (photo by Amy Smith, Oregon State University)

Microbes found in this lava tube on Newberry Crater in Oregon were cultured under conditions similar to those on Mars. (Amy Smith, Oregon State University)

Scientists think they’ve uncovered clues to what life might exist on Mars – from a discovery made right here on Earth.

The team from Oregon State University collected microbes from ice within a lava tube found in the Cascade Mountains in America’s Northwest.

They found the little life forms not only live, but can actually thrive in cold, Mars-like conditions.

Study author Martin Fisk points out that, since temperatures on Mars hardly reach the freezing point, the levels of oxygen levels are lower and liquid water is not present on its surface, the conditions in the lava tubes aren’t as harsh as they are on Mars, though “water is hypothesized to be present in the warmer subsurface of Mars.”

“Although this study does not exactly duplicate what you would find on Mars, it does show that bacteria can live in similar conditions,” Fisk says.

His team found that the microbes’ metabolism, under the Mars-like conduction, is driven by the oxidation of iron from a volcanic mineral called olivine, which was found in the rocks of the lava tube. Olivine is also found on Mars.

In their search for microbes, Amy Smith and Radu Popa collect samples of ice with basalt chips containing olivine from a lava tube in Oregon 's Cascade Mountains. (photo by Jane Boone)

In their search for microbes, Amy Smith and Radu Popa collect samples of ice with basalt chips containing olivine from a lava tube in Oregon 's Cascade Mountains. (Jane Boone)

When the microbes were placed in a laboratory setting at room temperature with normal oxygen levels, they consumed organic material (sugar) the same way other Earth creatures do.

However, when the researchers took away that organic material, dropped the room temperature to near-freezing and lowered the oxygen levels, they noticed the microbes began to use the iron within olivine as a source of energy.

Within the lava tube, where they’re covered in ice and isolated from the atmosphere, the microbes out-compete oxygen for the iron.

Fisk adds, “We know from direct examination, as well as satellite imagery, that olivine is in Martian rocks, and now we know that olivine can sustain microbial life.”

Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

4 Responses to “Clues to Life on Mars Found on Earth”

  1. Biswajyoti Chatterjee says:

    This is a great stride forward. If microbial life is found on Mars, we will have the chance to witness evolution. By “We” I don’t mean we the living, but some future descendants. It may not necessarily follow the pattern on earth.

  2. Fluidizer says:

    You are making several assumptions out of very thin blue air. Mars is billions of years older then the Earth, so why would you assume that life there is not evolved? How will this older life begin it’s evolution simply because Man enters the picture? We will bring our environment with us perhaps, and Terra-form the planet? Or will future Mars pioneers simply bring the critter’s inside their habitat, and watch them for a few million years? Even then, the animals will evolve to the habitat, and be incapable of surviving outdoors on it’s own world.
    Despite Man’s conceit, things like Evolution and “Climate Change” cannot be controlled or affected by his activity. Despite being deeply impressed with ourselves and our puny accomplishments, our arrogance blinds us to the fact that such things can only be controlled by God.

    • Biswajyoti Chatterjee says:

      Though I’m a pure atheist, your viewpoint has a scientific angle that is hard to ignore. Thanks for your response. And I really didn’t know that Mars is billions of years older than the earth. Thank you for that piece of information. I have absolutely no right to assume that life in Mars has not evolved in it’s own way. This fact alone gives a different twist to my expectations. Even if I keep god out of the picture, you are very true about our arrogance for our puny little accomplishments. Thanks again. Keep in touch.

  3. YAKUBU says:


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