Scientists turn to Chile's Atacama desert
to study life on Mars
Send a link to a friend
[February 27, 2017]
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Astrobiologists
seeking to understand where life might be found on Mars, and what form
it might take, are finding that the Atacama desert in Chile, the driest
in the world, may hold some important clues.
Since a 2003 study that examined microbial life in the 'Mars-like soils'
of the Atacama, astrobiological research - the study of life on Earth to
understand how it may form elsewhere in the universe - in the desert has
"It is much cheaper than traveling to Mars," said Armando Azua, a
Chilean astrobiologist at the Bl Marble Space Institute in the U.S., who
grew up in one of the Atacama's few populated areas.
"It is the driest and oldest desert in the world, a unique place where
life had no choice but to adapt to the lack of water."
Still, even in this harsh environment, scientists have found life -
usually at the microbiological level - clinging on.
"We think that even in those places on Mars where previously it was
thought life would not be found, because they were too dry for anything
to survive, well we've found places just like that on Earth and there
are still different kinds of microrganisms," said Azua.
[to top of second column]
Scientists are currently investigating if fungi or other organisms
could adapt and harvest high levels of ultraviolet radiation as an
energy source, in the way that fungi found near the site of the 1986
Chernobyl nuclear disaster was apparently feeding off the area's
high levels of radiation.
Azua's team identified a patch of the Atacama that was the driest of
all, where centuries may pass without any rainfall. They dug down,
and found a whole host of thriving bacteria.
"If we can show that in the Atacama desert, life is capable of
tolerating extreme dryness...that will open up tremendously the
possibilities of finding life not only on Mars but elsewhere in the
universe," he said.
(Reporting by Reuters TV and Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Bernadette
[© 2017 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2017 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.