The ability of life to make its way into the most extreme environments on Earth, in which we would never imagine that they can allow the proliferation of organisms, does not fail to provide one test after another, giving us reason to believe that extraterrestrial life, even if in its most primitive form, it can occur on other planets, or in remote places of our Solar System.
A team of scientists has discovered that microbes in Antarctica have a capacity never before known to capture hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide from the air to stay alive in the most extreme conditions.
A finding that suggests that extraterrestrial microbes could also depend on tracking atmospheric gases to survive.
“Antarctica is one of the most extreme environments on Earth, however, the cold, dark and dry desert regions are home to a surprisingly rich diversity of microbial communities,” says the study’s lead author and associate scientist at the University. from New South Wales of Sydney, Professor Belinda Ferrari.
The big question has been how microbes can survive when there is little water , soils have very little organic carbon and there is very little capacity to produce energy from the sun through photosynthesis during winter’s darkness.
“We discovered that microbes have developed mechanisms to live off air and that they can get most of the energy and carbon they need to remove atmospheric gases , including hydrogen and carbon monoxide,” he says.
To develop the study, soil samples were taken from two ice- free coastal sites in different regions of East Antarctica. One of them was Robinson Ridge, 10 kilometers from Casey Station, in Wilkes Land. The other was Adams Flat, 242 kilometers from Davis Station in Princes Elizabeth Land. Both areas are pristine polar deserts devoid of vascular plants.
The researchers studied the microbial DNA in the surface soil of both places and reconstructed the genomes of 23 of the microbes that lived there, including some of the first genomes of two groups of previously unknown bacteria called WPS-2 and AD3.
They discovered that dominant soil species had genes that gave them a high affinity for hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which allowed them to remove trace gases from the air at a rate high enough to sustain their anticipated energy needs and support primary production.
A possible sustenance of extraterrestrial life
This new understanding of how life can still exist in physically extreme environments devoid of nutrients such as Antarctica opens up the possibility that atmospheric gases support life on other planets.
Most organisms use the energy of the sun or the earth to grow. More research is needed to see if this novel use of atmospheric gases as an alternative energy source is only widespread in Antarctica, or in other places, even outside our planet.
For example, on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The study has been developed by researchers from UNSW, Monash University, the Australian Center for Ecogenomics at the University of Queensland, GNS Science in New Zealand and the Antarctic Division of Australia, has been published in the journal Nature.