Biologists have found microbes that live in the hottest, coldest, driest and most unpleasant places on Earth. Many of these bugs don’t adapt well to new surroundings, but one microbe is remarkable for withstanding a wide range of conditions. This quality might make this unique organism suitable for adapting to life on Mars.
This ultimate survivor is called Methanosarcina barkeri. It is found in freshwater and marine sediments, and other places where oxygen is scarce. Because it breathes out methane, researchers are interested to see if it — or some other “methanogen” — could be responsible for the methane that was detected in the martian atmosphere in 2003.
What makes M. barkeri stand out among its methanogen cousins is that it is not as picky about where it lives. Recent studies have found that it can manage long dry spells and wide temperature swings.
“It has all the characteristics to survive on Mars,” says Kevin Sowers of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.
Sowers thinks a M. barkeri-like bug might handle everything the red planet throws at it: strong seasonal water cycles, scarce nutrients, and day-night temperature differences as high as 100 degrees Celsius.
To support this hypothesis, Sowers and his colleagues plan to put M. barkeri through the wringer to see how just how adaptive it is. Under extremes of dryness, temperature and oxidation, they will investigate the organism’s DNA and cell functions, as well as an outer “armor” that may be the microbe’s key survival mechanism.
This research is funded by NASA’s Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program.