Life on Mars could exist, say researchers
On Earth, the majority of methane is produced by living organisms, and the abundance of methane found in the Martian atmosphere suggests a similar process is occurring on Mars.
Methane on this planet is produced by microbes known as methanogens which are anaerobes meaning that they do not need oxygen and instead rely on hydrogen, meaning that they could survive on Mars.
However, the atmosphere on Mars is extremely thin – just one per cent the thickness of Earth’s – so experts wanted to see if the microbes could survive in its air.
To test this, scientists from the University of Arkansas took four species of methanogens – Methanothermobacter wolfeii, Methanosarcina barkeri, Methanobacterium formicicum, and Methanococcus maripaludis – and grew them in test tubes.
Life could exist in the atmosphere
In the tubes, the microbes were placed in liquids that acted as potential sub-surface Martian water.
The microbes were also fed hydrogen gas and covered in dirt to simulate the conditions of Mars and then subjected to low pressures.
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They found that the methanogens could survive for up to 21 days in pressures which were six-thousandths of that on Earth, indicating that they could survive in the Martian atmosphere.
Rebecca Mickol, from the University of Arkansas, said: “In all the environments we find here on Earth, there is some sort of microorganism in almost all of them.
“On Earth, most methane is produced biologically by past or present organisms. The same could possibly be true for Mars.”
There could also be water on Mars
Explaining the next part of the process, she said: "The next step is to also include temperature.
"Mars is very, very cold, often getting down to -212ºF at night, and sometimes, on the warmest day of the year, at noon, the temperature can rise above freezing.
“We'd run our experiments just above freezing, but the cold temperature would limit evaporation of the liquid media and it would create a more Mars-like environment.
"That being said, with the abundance of life on Earth, in all the different extremes of environments found here, it's quite possible there exists life — bacteria or tiny microorganisms — somewhere else in the Universe.
"We're just trying to explore that idea."