An Earth bug could survive on Mars

Scientists have discovered the ideal Martian – a breed of bug living right here on Earth. It is a microbe that can withstand an incredible range of conditions.

Mars photographed by the Hubble space telescopeAnd it breathes out methane, the same gas that NASA revealed they had detected on the Red Planet. Its identification provides evidence that Martians really could be alive and well beneath the frozen surface of Mars.

UK Mars scientist Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University, believes the methane detected on Mars must also be given off by microbes, rather than be due to any volcanic activity. Space biologists have been studying microbes that live in the hottest, coldest, driest and most unpleasant places on Earth. They found one that is remarkable for withstanding a wide range of conditions.

Scientists are calling it the ultimate survivor. Labelled Methanosarcina barkeri, it is a type of microbe called a methanogen because it produces methane. US scientists are excited about the new bug because it is not as picky as other methanogens about where it lives. It can survive long dry spells and huge temperature swings of 100 C, just as are found on Mars.

One of M. barkeri’s advantages is that it eats a wide variety of things, including wood alcohol and vinegar. But if they are not available it can feed on a mix of hydrogen and carbon dioxide, both of which are found on Mars.

It can imitate a submarine to move through water. But if water is scarce, as on Mars today, it can happily sit through a long dry spell. The biologists’ full story on this amazing microbe is here.

NASA is funding more research into the amazing creature as a possible model for life on Mars, under its Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program. But because the planet lacks a protective magnetic shield against solar radiation, they believe life today will be hidden underground.

Team leader Kevin Sowers, of the University of Maryland, believes a bug like M. barkeri might handle everything the red planet throws at it – strong seasonal water cycles, scarce nutrients, and day-night temperature differences as high as 100 C. He said: “It has all the characteristics to survive on Mars. We are pushing the envelope to see what the organism’s limits are.”

On Earth, scientists have awoken bugs from thousands of years of hibernation. The European Space Agency is sending a British-built rover called Bridget to search for life on Mars as part of the ExoMars mission, although the launch has now slipped to 2018, according to the BBC. A new NASA rover, Curiosity, will fly before that in 2011.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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