Dormant microbial life in Atacama Desert goes active when wet — true for Mars, too?

64956318_736bdb1f44_oIt may rain once a decade or less in South America’s Atacama Desert, but tiny bacteria and microorganisms survive there, hinting at the possibility of similar life on Mars, researchers said Monday. [Their report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.]

The desert, which spans parts of Chile and Peru, is the driest non-polar desert on Earth and may contain the environment most like that of the Red Planet, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lead researcher Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor and planetary scientist at the Technical University of Berlin, and colleagues took a trip to the desert in 2015 to learn more about what kind of life might exist there.

Then, unexpectedly, it rained.

Scientists detected an explosion of biological activity in the soil, and quickly began using sterile spoons to scoop up samples. (…)

“In the past, researchers have found dying organisms near the surface and remnants of DNA, but this is really the first time that anyone has been able to identify a persistent form of life living in the soil of the Atacama Desert,” Schulze-Makuch said.

“We believe these microbial communities can lay dormant for hundreds or even thousands of years in conditions very similar to what you would find on a planet like Mars and then come back to life when it rains.” [More at links]

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