What Might We Name the First Mars Microbes?

I, for one, welcome our new Mars desert-dwelling overlords.

Just some random (terrestrial) microbes doing microbial things [MSU]

It’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time: if we discover microbes eking out an existence on Mars, what might they be called? At first, I presumed it would be a variation on how we designate microbial names on Earth. Something like Staphylococcus aureus but swap out the “aureus” for “ares” (Greek for “Mars”, the god of war) or … something.

As you can see, biology isn’t my strong suit and butchering Latin and Greek is all in a day’s work. So, feeling out of my depth, I decided to leave that thought alone and file the idea under “Interesting, But Needs More Research.” That’s where the topic stayed for a while; I wanted to wait for a related piece of science to appear in a journal that could be a catalyst for my question. And last week, that research surfaced. I saw my opportunity.

Searching for Martians on Earth

The Atacama Desert is an amazing place. Having visited the ESO’s Paranal Observatory and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in 2016 as a lucky member of the #MeetESO team, I have first-hand experience of that extreme and breathtaking region. While driving between sites, we’d often go for hours without seeing any vegetation or life of any kind. Atacama is the driest place on Earth; its salty, parched soil is bombarded by ultraviolet radiation, and the core of the desert doesn’t receive rain for decades. But just because life isn’t obvious in the arid ‘scapes, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The flora and fauna that does call Atacama their home are very specialized in finding ways to thrive. On the smallest life scales, for some microbes that means living underground, which makes them very interesting organisms indeed.

In a new study, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, the results of a mock-Mars-life-hunting rover campaign in the Atacama Desert’s core have been revealed.

The research was driven, in part, to develop techniques for robotic missions to the Red Planet that will seek out alien bacteria that may be holed up in an underground colony. Remember, Mars has the same land area as Earth, so there’s a lot of real estate to search for microscopic lifeforms. Sure, scientists are smart and can narrow down potentially-habitable regions that they can drop a life-seeking robot on, but once landed on that toxic soil, what kind of methodology should they use to look for these hypothetical bacteria? The Atacama Desert makes for a decent analog of Mars; it’s very dry and its soil is laced with toxic perchlorate salts, so if microbes on Mars bear any resemblance to the nature of microbes in the Atacama, scientists can take a stab at predicting their behavior and guide their Mars rovers to the most likely places where they might be hiding.

Researchers already know that bacterial life occupies even the harshest Atacama regions, but according to team leader Stephen Pointing, a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, the microbes we are familiar with are common species that live on the surface, using sunlight for energy. But Pointing isn’t so interested in what’s on the surface; his rover is fitted with a drill and extraction system that can take samples of soil from underground. During the campaign, Pointing’s team made some compelling discoveries.

“We saw that with increasing depth the bacterial community became dominated by bacteria that can thrive in the extremely salty and alkaline soils,” he told me. “They in turn were replaced at depths down to 80 centimeters by a single specific group of bacteria that survive by metabolizing methane.”

Methane. Huh. That’s interesting.

These subsurface microbes are known to science — they have been found in deep mine shafts and other subterranean environments — but they’ve never been found living under the surface of the world’s most arid region. They’ve also fine-tuned their evolution to specifically adapt to this harsh environment. “The communities of bacteria that we discovered were remarkably lacking in complexity, and this likely reflects the extreme stress under which they develop,” said Pointing.

The biggest discovery made during this research was that the subsurface colonies of bacteria were very patchy, said Pointing, a factor that will have ramifications for the search for their Martian cousins. “The patchy nature of the colonization suggest that a rover would be faced with a ‘needle in a haystack’ scenario in the search for Martian bacteria,” he said.

Desert Planet Survivor

This research is a fascinating glimpse into how Earth-based environments are being used to better understand how alien bacteria may evolve in their native environments. But the desert-thriving, methane-munching bacteria of the Atacama may also inspire their name — should they be discovered one day.

Pointing explained: “The way we assign Latin names to bacteria is based on their evolutionary relationship to each other and we measure this using their genetic code. The naming of Martian bacteria would require a completely new set of Latin names at the highest level if Martian bacteria were a completely separate evolutionary lineage — that is they evolved from a different common ancestor to Earth bacteria in a “second genesis” event [and not related to Earth life via panspermia]. If we find truly “native” Martian bacteria I would love to name one, and call it Planeta-desertum superstes, which translates in Latin to ‘survivor on the desert planet.'”

So there we have it, an answer to my question about what our Martian neighbors might be called, if we find them: Planeta-desertum superstes, the desert planet survivor.

Read more about Pointing’s research in my HowStuffWorks article “Hunting for Martians in the Most Extreme Desert on Earth

Water Could Kill Life On Mars

A view from the Viking 1 deck, showing trenches its robotic arm dug out to acquire samples for testing [NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roel van der Hoorn]

When rains came to one of the driest places on Earth, an unprecedented mass extinction ensued.

The assumption was that this rainfall would turn this remote region of the Atacama Desert in Chile into a wondrous, floral haven — dormant seeds hidden in the parched landscape would suddenly awake, triggered by the “life-giving” substance they hadn’t seen for centuries — but it instead decimated over three quarters of the native bacterial life, microbes that shun water in favor of the nitrogen-rich compounds the region has locked in its dry soil.

In other words, death fell from the skies.

“We were hoping for majestic blooms and deserts springing to life. Instead, we learned the contrary, as we found that rain in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert caused a massive extinction of most of the indigenous microbial species there,” said astrobiologist Alberto Fairen, who works at Cornell Cornell University and the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid. Fairien is co-author of a new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

“The hyperdry soils before the rains were inhabited by up to 16 different, ancient microbe species. After it rained, there were only two to four microbe species found in the lagoons,” he added in a statement. “The extinction event was massive.”

El Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) near San Pedro de Atacama looks very Mars-like [photo taken during #MeetESO in 2016, Ian O’Neill]

Climate models suggest that these rains shouldn’t hit the core regions of Atacama more than once every century, though there is little evidence of rainfall for at least 500 years. Because of the changing climate over the Pacific Ocean, however, modern weather patterns have shifted, causing the weird rain events of March 25 and Aug. 9, 2015. It also rained more recently, on June 7, 2017. Besides being yet another reminder about how climate change impacts some of the most delicate ecosystems on our planet, this new research could have some surprise implications for our search for life on Mars.

Over forty years ago, NASA carried out a profound experiment on the Martian surface: the Viking 1 and 2 landers had instruments on board that would explicitly search for life. After scooping Mars regolith samples into their chemical labs and adding a nutrient-rich water mix, one test detected a sudden release of carbon dioxide laced with carbon-14, a radioisotope that was added to the mix. This result alone pointed to signs that Martian microbes in the regolith could be metabolizing the mixture, belching out the CO2.

Alas, the result couldn’t be replicated and other tests threw negative results for biological activity. Scientists have suggested that this false positive was caused by inorganic reactions, especially as, in 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander discovered toxic and highly reactive perchlorates is likely common all over Mars. Since Viking, no other mission has attempted a direct search for life on Mars and the missions since have focused on seeking out water and past habitable environments rather than directly testing for Mars germs living on modern Mars.

With this in mind, the new Atacama microbe study could shed some light on the Viking tests. Though the out-gassing result was likely a false positive, even if all the samples collected by the two landers contained microscopic Martians, the addition of the liquid mix may well have sterilized the samples — the sudden addition of a large quantity of water is no friend to microbial life that has adapted to such an arid environment.

“Our results show for the first time that providing suddenly large amounts of water to microorganisms — exquisitely adapted to extract meager and elusive moisture from the most hyperdry environments — will kill them from osmotic shock,” said Fairen.

Another interesting twist to this research is that NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity discovered nitrate-rich deposits in the ancient lakebed in Gale Crater. These deposits might provide sustenance to Mars bacteria (and may be a byproduct of their metabolic activity), like their interplanetary alien cousins in Atacama.

As water-loving organisms, humans have traditionally assumed life elsewhere will bare similar traits to life as we know it. But as this study shows, some life on Earth can appear quite alien; the mass extinction event in the high deserts of Chile could teach us about how to (and how not to) seek out microbes on other planets.

Source: Cornell University

Dead On Arrival: Necropanspermia Spawned Life on Earth?

Are those Martian fossils in meteorite ALH84001? (NASA)
Are those Martian fossils in meteorite ALH84001? (NASA)

Panspermia” is a hypothesis that life is transferred from planet-to-planet and star system-to-star system through some interplanetary or interstellar means.

But for panspermia to work, this life needs to be sufficiently protected — and, um, kept alive — from the worst the universe can throw at it (such as radiation, cold and vacuum). Alas, when considering interstellar hops, the timescales are likely too long (i.e. millions of years) and said life will be dead on arrival.

We know that Earth Brand™ life is a pretty hardy thing. After all, we’ve tortured terrestrial microbes and mosquito larvae in the vacuum of space to see if they’d pop. Sure enough, when brought back to terra firma the various creatures wriggled and squirmed as if nothing had happened. But these experiments in orbit were carried out over the course of months or years. While this might be suitable for interplanetary transfers, it would take millions of years for an extraterrestrial interloper to traverse even a modest interstellar gap.

Any hitchhikers that were alive on a stellar wind-blown particle will be toast (or, more accurately: freeze-dried, pulverized, mashed-up, DNA-shredded mess) on reaching their exotic destination eons later.

What good are tiny alien fossils when the panspermia model is supposed to seed other worlds with life… that’s actually alive?

Enter a new incarnation of pansermia: “Necropanspermia.”

Conceived by Paul Wesson, of Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Canada, necropanspermia is the transfer of the information of life to new worlds, wriggling extraterrestrial bacterium not required.

Assuming alien microbial life has made the trip across interstellar space, died and then fossilized, Wesson reckons the information contained within the long-dead microbe could be used as some kind of template by a hospitable world to use and grow new life. (It’s not quite zombie science, but it’s hard not to say “reanimated alien corpse.”)

Wesson even goes so far to suggest ET’s microbial remains can be “resurrected.”

“Resurrection may, however, be possible.” Wesson concludes in his Space Science Reviews paper. “Certain micro-organisms possess remarkably effective enzyme systems that can repair a multitude of strand breaks.”

Hypothesizing about various forms of panspermia may seem more like a philosophical argument, but Wesson suggests that we might be able to find evidence for necropanspermia if we collect some dust samples from the outermost reaches of the solar system, far enough away from Earth’s biological pollution.

Alas, as the Hayabusa asteroid mission has proven, capturing dust from anywhere in space isn’t easy.

Read more about necropanspermia in my Discovery News article “Life on Earth Spawned by Dead Alien Microbes?