bacteria

Extreme spring points to life on Mars

McGILL (CAN)—Methane-eating bacteria are able to survive in a highly unique spring located on Axel Heiberg Island in the Nunavut Territory in Canada’s extreme North.

The Lost Hammer spring is similar to possible past or present springs on Mars, leading researchers to believe that they too, may be able to support life.

The subzero water in the spring is so salty that it doesn’t freeze despite the cold, and has no consumable oxygen in it.

However, big bubbles of methane do come to the surface, which has provoked researchers’ curiosity as to whether the gas is being produced geologically or biologically and whether anything could survive in the extreme hypersaline subzero environment.

“We were surprised that we did not find methanogenic bacteria that produce methane at Lost Hammer,” says Lyle Whyte, McGill University microbiologist.

“But we did find other very unique anaerobic organisms—organisms that survive by essentially eating methane and probably breathing sulfate instead of oxygen.”

Details of the research appear in the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal.

Methane and frozen water has been discovered on Mars and photos taken by the Mars Orbiter show the formation of new gullies, but no one knows what is forming them. One answer is that there could be that there are springs like Lost Hammer on Mars, Whyte says.

“The point of the research is that it doesn’t matter where the methane is coming from. If you have a situation where you have very cold salty water, it could potentially support a microbial community, even in that extreme harsh environment.”

While Axel Heiberg is already an inhospitable place, the Lost Hammer spring is even more so. “There are places on Mars where the temperature reaches relatively warm -10 to 0 degrees and perhaps even above 0ºC,” Whyte says, “and on Axel Heiberg it gets down to -50, easy.

“The Lost Hammer spring is the most extreme subzero and salty environment we’ve found. This site also provides a model of how a methane seep could form in a frozen world like Mars, providing a potential mechanism for the recently discovered Martian methane plumes.”

McGill University news: www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/

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