“From the scientific point of view, I have to assume that there once was or still is life in Mars,” says microbiologist Dirk Wagner, researcher at the AWI research centre in Potsdam. Because of statements like this, he is often labelled as a “sci-fi fanatic”, but he really isn’t, for the question of life on Mars has long been an intriguing possibility.
Wagner and his team of seven have analysed the conditions in Mars. The most important finding to consider is that evidence of water has been found on Mars, and water is a basic building block of life. Another factor is the occurrence of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which are nutritional bases for some life forms, just as bread is to humans. Fundamentals for life are also optimal if there are no huge temperature fluctuations: due to the absence of a protective atmosphere on Mars, the daily temperature there fluctuates between -70º and 20º C, so any life form on Mars would have to be extremely adaptable.
Since both Mars and Earth have existed for around 4.6 billion years and are at vaguely the same distance from the sun, they should have a similar chance of supporting life. The first life forms on Earth were bacteria and archaea. Now Wagner is trying to simulate the conditions on Mars by using specially designed equipment into which he places a variety of earthly life forms. In particular, resistant strains (such as methanosarcina SMA-21) from the permafrost in the Siberian tundra have been selected for the experiment. These organisms are adapted to the cold, the dark and to low oxygen environments, and are therefore optimal for research into living conditions on Mars.
The Mars simulation chamber belonging to the DRL in Berlin; this chamber simulates conditions on Mars.
The experiment has produced some amazing results: The permafrost microorganisms survived the extreme conditions and continued to develop normally. This is a good indication that life is possible on Mars even under such conditions. Wagner is presently looking for other organisms that live in the permafrost of Antarctica's Prydz Bay. The search is going to be around the Larsemann Mountains and Rauer Island.
The existence of life on the Mars is not that improbable. Again and again it has been shown just how adaptable living things can be. For example, autarkic life forms (independent and self-sufficient) have developed in a Romanian cave system. This miniature world has probably been cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years, within which very unique life forms have developed that are very similar to “normal, earthly” organisms. They are transparent and mostly have no eyes; as such they fit perfectly into their dark environment.
A life form from the Movite Cave (Romania) that looks very similar to the spider.
Antarctica also has extreme living environments. Under the Russian station at the Pole of Cold, beneath a thick layer of ice, there is a lake that stays unfrozen due to the high pressure of the ice above it. Scientists speculate that life forms have developed in this isolated area that could give information about the origin of life on Earth today. The Russian researchers have nearly completed their drilling through the 3.5-km ice sheet to the lake. As no one has ever drilled through before, there is no possibility of contamination from foreign material. Together with American researchers, a concept is being developed on how the possibly unique relics of the past can be made scientifically useful without destroying the ecosystem of the lake.
Vostok lake at the Pole of Cold in the Antarctic; scientist speculate that unique forms of life could have evolved underneath this 3600m of ice sheet, in which despite the low temperature the water remains unfrozen due to the high pressure exerted on it. A temperature of -85º C has been recorded in Vostok, which is the lowest temperature ever recorded on the earth’s surface.
Approximately 1,000 km from the Russian station in Vostok, Wagner will — in the next few weeks — work in the permafrost to look for further micro-organisms to aid in his experiments. It is only through further research that the conditions on a young Earth and possibly on other planets can be understood.
Text: Dr Monica Schoenwaelder
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Tuesday, 06 March 2007 17:32
Antarctic cultures for Mars researchWritten by Polarstern Expedition
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