Microbes found in one of Earth’s most hostile places, giving hope for life on Mars

By Elizabeth Pennisi

A hardy community of bacteria lives in Chile’s Atacama Desert—one of the driest and most inhospitable places on Earth—where it can survive a decade without water, new research confirms. The work should put to rest the doubts of many scientists, who had suggested that previous evidence of microscopic life in this remote region came from transient microbes. And because the soils in this location closely resemble those on Mars, these desert dwellers may give hope to those seeking life on the Red Planet’s similarly hostile surface.

The work “does a good job of justifying that these organisms really do live there,” says Julie Neilson, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who was not involved with the study. The Atacama Desert may be uninhabitable for us, but for these organisms, “it’s their ecosystem,” she says.

The Atacama Desert stretches for 1000 kilometers along the Pacific coast of Chile, and rainfall can be as low as 8 millimeters per year. There’s so little precipitation that there’s very little weathering, so over time the surface has built up a crusty layer of salts, further discouraging life there. “You can drive for 100 kilometers and not see anything like a blade of grass,” Neilson says. Although she and others have found some bacteria there, many biologists have argued that those microbes are not full-time residents, but were blown in, where they die a slow death.

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