A University of Maryland research team led by
last month revealed a type of organism that may survive on Mars and other extreme environments. The discovery is a breakthrough in methods of survival under the cold and dry conditions found in Antarctica -- and Mars.
DasSarma’s research for NASA focuses on Halorubrum lacusprofundi
, a microbe that was discovered in Deep Lake, a very salty lake in Antarctica.
“It’s a good model for surviving in conditions like Mars,” he says of the microbe whose adaptations allow it to live in a cold, salty environment that is considered similar to some environments on Mars.
The National Space and Atmospheric Administration is funding the research, which was published in a professional journal, with an ongoing multi-year grant for nearly $500,000.
DasSarma says there is so much interest in the question of life on Mars because Mars and Earth are sister planets. Both are within the “habitable zone,” close enough to the Sun to sustain life if liquid water is present.
“Mars is much drier and colder than Earth,” he says, but photographs show seasonal flows of brine, or salty water, down the sides of a crater on Mars. “There are probably pools of brine under the surface of Mars.”
DasSarma says the NASA grant is intended to answer basic biotechnology questions.
“NASA is asking, could any organism survive under Mars’ conditions? What molecular adaptations are necessary for survival? Our research determined that certain organisms can survive,” says DasSarma, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in downtown Baltimore. DasSarma is also a research scientist with the university’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology at the Inner Harbor.
DasSarma and his team have long studied organisms that grow in unusual environments. “Our specialty is understanding how they are able to survive in very dry and salty conditions,” says DasSarma, the key finding being that they have adaptations that allow them to hold onto water.
DasSarma says the microbe he is studying for NASA won't be found on Mars necessarily. But if life is one day discovered on Mars, “they will be a salt-loving type of organism,” he says, “possibly something like it.”
DasSarma says his research may lead to the development of novel biotechnological applications for use on Earth.
Source: Shiladitya DasSamra, University of Maryland School of Medicine and Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology
Writer: Barbara Pash