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Mars Space Science

Bacteria Could Survive In Martian Soil 90

Posted by Soulskill
from the only-if-they-use-a-portion-of-their-cunning dept.
Dagondanum writes "Multiple missions have been sent to Mars with the hopes of testing the surface of the planet for life — or the conditions that could create life. The question of whether life in the form of bacteria (or something even more exotic) exists on Mars is hotly debated, and still lacks a definitive yes or no. Experiments done right here on Earth that simulate the conditions on Mars and their effects on terrestrial bacteria show that it is entirely possible for certain strains of bacteria to weather the harsh environment of Mars." Perhaps this is something that will be tested further in a few years by the Mars Science Lab, also known as "Curiosity" and (as reader Nova1021 points out) "the Mars Action Hero."
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Bacteria Could Survive In Martian Soil

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  • by Wonko the Sane (25252) * on Monday November 02, 2009 @10:50AM (#29950818) Journal

    Sounds like we should get started with the terraforming.

    • by MBGMorden (803437) on Monday November 02, 2009 @11:42AM (#29951524)

      They're waiting on that definite answer to life existing on Mars. If bacteria can survive there and we seed the planet, then we will never know for sure if life ever existed there independent of our own additions. Anything that we find that might have previously been there would always hold the possibility of just being a mutated strain of the life we sent ourselves.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by spydabyte (1032538)
      they're waiting for a reason. Tell me the target market for "it's just awesome." and "why not?"

      Until we see an intergalactic threat, I doubt we'll see the kind of R&D needed to really accomplish this.
      • by Metasquares (555685) <slashdotNO@SPAMmetasquared.com> on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:04PM (#29951844) Homepage
        That's just the thing - we might not see it until it's too late. One strong gamma ray burst could just wipe us out and we wouldn't even know it was coming until the moment it arrived. It's not about responding to an imminent threat, but being prepared to recover from one that may occur at a later time. Right now all of our data is on one hard drive. We need to make a backup.
      • by Narpak (961733)

        Until we see an intergalactic threat, I doubt we'll see the kind of R&D needed to really accomplish this.

        Unfortunately I reckon that if we see "an intergalactic threat" starting the R&D would be a bit on the late side.

      • Until we see an intergalactic threat, I doubt we'll see the kind of R&D needed to really accomplish this.

        See, that's the problem. It doesn't require an "intergalactic threat" for us to be in trouble. We already know about one definite cause of Earth's destruction, and it's only about 93 million miles away. If we keep saying, "we have plenty of time," eventually it won't be true.

    • by AP31R0N (723649)

      There's a big problem with Mars when it comes to terraforming. Mars lacks a spinning iron core so it has no protection from the sun blasting away its atmosphere. We'd want to invent some way of keeping the air in place, otherwise we'd be terraforming something that will eventually be a barren rock.

      ** Just did a search and learned that scientists no longer think this is the case **

      My plan for terraforming Mars was to have giant tanks of algae. Pull in the CO2, bring it to a temp the algae can survive, kick

      • by CorporateSuit (1319461) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:46PM (#29952346)
        My father has a mutant strain of Vinca in his yard. We've found plants living for more than 6 months without water, light, and under extreme temperature swings (They were completely white, and were found practically boiling in their own juice when we uncovered them, but still very much alive) and some sections of the yard thrive on nothing but a steady supply of herbicides. That and the spearamint plants that cannot ever seem to be extinguished no matter how much they're cut down, dug up, and flattened, and the wild blackberries in the Southeast portion of his yard that made me think "Day of the Triffids" was a documentary of my life growing up. I always thought we should send samples of these plants to NASA for their consideration in terraforming anything.

        The more I think about it, the less I'm convinced my dad is Batman, and the more I'm convinced my mom is Poison Ivy.
        • by AP31R0N (723649)

          Indeed, there are strains of kudzu and similar vines that could make a living on Mars, Venus or wafting on updrafts in Jupiter.

      • by ByOhTek (1181381)

        The problem is the reduction of greenhouse gasses, cooling down Mars.

        I'd want to knock a few heavy rocks down on Mars first. After that, I'd want something to grow there that would pull oxygen (and nitrogen, is there much of that?) out of the soil to thicken the atmosphere, so lowering the greenhouse gases won't be so harmful.

        • by MBGMorden (803437)

          I think the trick would be to increase the amount of greenhouse gases but to tip the ratio in favor of oxygen. If you tripled the CO2 content of Mars' atmosphere but then also released enough oxygen and nitrogen that the level of CO2 stayed at a very small percentage of the overall atmosphere then Mars would not only warm up but the air would be breathable.

          Last I read though was that any terraforming would likely be temporary. There's a very good possiblity that Mars once did have life and eventually lost

        • by werfu (1487909)
          What isn't said is that water vapour is a far more efficient green house gaz than carbon dioxide. But first thing first, we need to engineer a bacteria that will survive in the harsh environment of Mars and grow into its soil, to release frozen CO2 and water. Once enough of both are present in the atmosphere, we'll be able to introduce plant that survive harsh, desert conditions. Finding the right bacteria is the only tough thing. Once we have it, seeding it is a matter of sending a rocket to the red planet
    • We're already doing it on Earth and don't know how to control it nor what the consequences will be. So I'd be a little cautious about terraforming.

      Infecting Mars with Earth-seeds seems quite harmless OTOH, and very interesting.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Right on!
      Even if Mars has bacterial life, it is irrelevant. We can plant life and terraform that area starting now. We could start by selecting key bacteria that provide a thicker atmosphere, then follow with lichens and work our way up. If Dr. McKay, NASA was right (and due to current findings looks to be true) we need only get to a tipping point before the frozen gases emitt quickly, making a more hospitable environment.
      Survival of the species long term (especially my species, and any other species we b

    • Terraforming is ridiculously inefficient compared to just building colonies out in space. Why tie up such large quantities of useful resources just to provide a surface to live on and mass to provide gravity, when for a fraction of those resources you can put a lot more people into space-based colonies and provide mass by spin?

      I predict that if we ever do colonize off-world, planetary colonization will be an amusing sideline as opposed to where the bulk of people live. There are too many advantages to space

      • If you are clever enough you should be able to do it with a relatively low resource investment by introducing the right type of microorganisms at the right time. Since those organisms will reproduce exponentially (given a sufficient quantity of food and energy) you can reduce the quantity you need to transport from earth to mars.

        The tradeoff is that the process might take a few centuries. All the more reason to get started now.

  • FP (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 4D6963 (933028) on Monday November 02, 2009 @10:50AM (#29950824)

    Allow me to be the first to point out that we already know that some bacteria can survive interplanetary space travel and life on the Moon.

    Now the real question is, can these bacterias be formed on Mars?

    • Pour a couple of hundred litres of water on the surface and see what grows!
    • Re:FP (Score:5, Funny)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday November 02, 2009 @10:56AM (#29950918) Journal
      How is Bacterium formed?

      How mars get pragnent?
      • Re:FP (Score:4, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:08PM (#29951894)

        How is Bacterium formed?

        How mars get pragnent?

        They need to do way instain shuttle. It was on the news this mroning, A bacteria in mars consumed its three cell divsions. They are takign the three cell waslls back to the earth to lady to rest. My pary are with the sceintists, i am truely sorry for your lots.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Daniel_Staal (609844)

      They are probably using a slightly different definition of 'survive' in this case: instead of just holing up in the equivalent of a bacterium space suit, they feed, grow, and reproduce.

      • Re:FP (Score:5, Informative)

        by reverseengineer (580922) on Monday November 02, 2009 @11:26AM (#29951318)
        No, it looks like the same definition- the bacteria that survived did so by forming desiccated, nondividing endospores. The article mentions that the bacteria which didn't protect themselves with the endospore stage died within minutes. The two strains of bacteria they tested are of particular importance because they have been known to survive the Jet Propulsion Lab standard decontamination procedures, and so could take a trip to Mars. This paper [plosone.org] describes some of the DNA repair mechanisms that B. pumilus uses to survive under adverse conditions.
    • by Kjella (173770)

      Considering there's decent evidence to suggest that there was flowing water on Mars long ago, it's quite possible they formed then and survived until now. Life on earth is also apparently very old, according to the wikipedia article on abiogenesis "The oldest ancient fossil microbe-like objects are dated to be 3.5 Ga (billion years old), just a few hundred million years younger than Earth itself." We have extremely little data on what sparks life though, so much bigger window but possibly a much narrower ta

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mikael (484)

      If bacteria can survive in the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere, and chunks of atmosphere can be blown away by the solar wind, is it possible that such bacteria could make the journey from Earth to Mars?

    • Now the real question is, can these bacterias be formed on Mars?

      bacterium [dict.org] (singular), bacteria (plural)

  • by pifactorial (1000403) on Monday November 02, 2009 @11:10AM (#29951084)
    To my knowledge many species of bacteria can survive indefinitely in practically any environment, but not while actively metabolizing. I am curious whether any of the species the article is talking about could actually survive and spread, if they would just stick around for a while and die out, or if they would only survive in a dormant state.
    • by careysub (976506) on Monday November 02, 2009 @11:26AM (#29951310)

      To my knowledge many species of bacteria can survive indefinitely in practically any environment, but not while actively metabolizing. I am curious whether any of the species the article is talking about could actually survive and spread, if they would just stick around for a while and die out, or if they would only survive in a dormant state.

      Bacteria definitely exist on Earth that can reproduce under conditions that exist somewhere on Mars, an example are the chemosynthetic bacteria found deep underground and are nourished by geothermal energy: http://www.planetary.org/news/2006/1027_Bacteria_Found_Thriving_Deep.html [planetary.org]

      What this study is establishing is whether it is possible to recover viable organisms from the near-surface soil. Such organisms might thrive below the reach of the surface lander's probes, but still have inactive spores brought to near the surface through water welling up from deeper down (and possibly other processes). Evidence of surface water outflows have been found in various spots on Mars.

      • by a_claudiu (814111)
        Does it exist geothermal energy on Mars? "That subterranean world, Onstott said, is a lightless pool of hot, pressurized salt water that stinks of sulfur and noxious gases humans would find unbreathable."
        • by khallow (566160)
          There are at least two possible geological power sources, thermal heat from Mars's interior (which is known to exist, though I doubt they have a good guess for the temperature versus depth curve). Given the evidence of past hydrothermal activity on the surface, this is likely to still exist. There are a huge number of bacteria species that exploit hydrothermal systems on Earth (for example, using hydrogen sulfide as food). And serpentinization [wikipedia.org] (the reaction of olivine with water to form serpentine. My under
  • by GargamelSpaceman (992546) on Monday November 02, 2009 @11:11AM (#29951098) Homepage Journal
    Buzz Lightyear steps off his lander to be the first human being on Mars. Six hours later, he is a puddle of goo. Two hours after that, all his crewmates are puddles of goo as well.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by jameskojiro (705701)

      Welcome to Mars, Bring plenty of Lysol...

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Buzz Lightyear steps off his lander to be the first human being on Mars.
      Six hours later, he is a puddle of goo. Two hours after that, all his crewmates are puddles of goo as well.

      If they figure out how to send radio signals it would be like ordering in pizza. It could end up a form spam e-mail. "Come to Mars we have a source of limitless energy", "Martians aren't bald we have a hair loss cure", "Viagra plants are a form of subsurface weed, free for the taking", "horny Martian women want to meet you", "prince of Mars needs help transferring money off planet, bring suitcases and lot of fat juicy people to carry them".

    • No kidding. I saw Mission To Mars too - we all know how that turned out. These bacteria will definitely mutate and eat anyone who comes out to check on them.

  • MMMORPG (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by jameskojiro (705701)

    Mars Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game:

    Dumbest Question: How I Mine Microbes?

  • The fact that modern bacteria can survive in those conditions says nothing about whether life could arise or even evolve there. Its a bit like assuming that because cockroaches can survive high doses of radiation there's potential for a 6 legged lifeform to arise inside nuclear reactors.

    • by careysub (976506) on Monday November 02, 2009 @11:34AM (#29951432)

      The fact that modern bacteria can survive in those conditions says nothing about whether life could arise or even evolve there. Its a bit like assuming that because cockroaches can survive high doses of radiation there's potential for a 6 legged lifeform to arise inside nuclear reactors.

      There are at least two serious problems with the objections offered above. First, no one supposes that life arose under conditions anything like Mars today, anymore than people suppose that new life is arising de novo on Earth today. Life would have arisen long ago under radically different (warmer and more moist) conditions. Second, not every study addresses all aspects of every question of science. In fact, none of them do! Criticizing a study for not examining a radically different question, not amenable to laboratory examination, and only distantly related to the one under study is simply perverse.

      The point is: it does say something about whether viable Martian bacteria (if they exist) could be recovered from the near surface soil.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Remember that the Earth has had several large impacts in the past, and that many of these events hurled tons of rocks and debris into space. Some of them at the proper angle and with enough force to leave orbit.

    We have found extremophiles hibernating in air pockets within rocks that had been air tight for hundreds of years. Is it so much of a stretch to assume that some of these debris might have carried life from earth to another planet? Realize that Mars doesn't have anywhere near the same level of atm

  • Nice... (Score:2, Funny)

    by moogoogaipan (970221)
    Now, Matians will think we are creating a biological warfare. Well, it's been nice to post on /. over the past few years. See you all on the other side.
  • by giladpn (1657217) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:00PM (#29951782)
    Why do we expect or hope that earth-like life forms will be found elsewhere?

    The question of whether life in the form of bacteria (or something even more exotic) exists on Mars is hotly debated, and still requires a resolute yes or no

    Ho hummm... We have had this debate going on since the "canals" were discovered on mars only to be debunked.

    Once upon a time 600 years ago, people "knew" they are at the center of the universe. We were unique, chosen by heaven to lord it over the animals and created in the image of heaven. That was the view of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and also of the eastern empires (remember the "Emperor of Heaven") ?

    Nowadays there is a large substantial minority of people whose thinking is guided by science. For this very substantial minority - debunking the "humans are at the center" myth is an article of faith. Finding the aliens - little green men or bacteria on mars - is important as an act of faith not just science.

    It is important to separate real empirical science from the pseudo-science that is really an alternative system of belief. If we just look at empirical facts, the probability of finding life twice in the same solar system is not huge.

    Anthropo-centric theology/philosophy was rightly debunked by Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein.

    Anti-anthropo-centric thinking equally deserves to be debunked. Science is about empirical evidence. Full stop.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      What is your point? Most researchers have 'expectations' or 'hopes' about their research, that's what peer review is for, to make sure that their personal biases don't get the best of them. Why shouldn't we hope? And aside from your sociological anecdotes, why too should we not expect? I'll grant that the existence of adapted extremophile life forms on Earth is not in of itself credible as a foundation for thinking that such hardy things would spontaneously form out of the gate, but that's assuming that all
      • by giladpn (1657217)
        The currently known empirical facts are sketchy, but they include a few known data points: - the failure of radio astronomy to detect signals coming from other civilizations - the calculations being done by several people, based on evolutionary science and bio-chemistry, of the probability of life forming spontaneously These data are not much, that is true; but they are sufficient to make the estimate I made. I think that is also pretty rational; so no need to make comments about my "rationality" just be
        • the failure of radio astronomy to detect signals coming from other civilizations

          EM communications are probably not the most advanced [xkcd.com] method out there, not to mention that the idea that EM signals can travel indefinitely has been debunked. Even if there were signals out there, they probably wouldn't reach us intact. Add to this the 'Apes or Angels' [projectrho.com] view of development.

          the calculations being done by several people, based on evolutionary science and bio-chemistry, of the probability of life forming spontaneously

          Based again on a sample size of ONE. That's not science any more than the Drake Equation. Only in the last century or so have we finally figured out roughly how life formed here, once, and even that not completely, and now

    • by Joe Tie. (567096) on Monday November 02, 2009 @02:24PM (#29953594)
      Finding the aliens - little green men or bacteria on mars - is important as an act of faith not just science.

      And that's where I think the flaw in your argument is. If it was faith, there wouldn't be a need to search for proof. The people on the other side are quite content to say "because, that's why".
      • by giladpn (1657217)
        "Because, that's why" is a great answer, agreed, for a scientist pursuing his/her own personal vision. Albert Einstein at the Bern post office or a 100,000 other people use that answer, and it has delivered great results for humanity.

        But in this case - its not a case of pursuing a personal vision. Obtaining empirical evidence would require a mission to Mars, and it can carry only so many experiments at so much cost.

        Personally I am more interested in experiments that will shed light on - for example -
        • by holmstar (1388267)
          You personally feel that information on planetary formation is more valuable than information on whether life exists/existed on another body in the solar system. There are a lot of people that would disagree. Those other people also have a portion of their tax dollars go to space science.

          Besides, there is evidence that suggests the potential presence of life on mars, such as the presence of methane in the atmosphere. Methane should be short lived in the martian atmosphere, so its presence means that
    • by khallow (566160)

      Why do we expect or hope that earth-like life forms will be found elsewhere?

      It's successful physiology. The cell wall, for example, is a likely innovation for any liquid-based life form. Anything that has inheritable traits might sequester that information in some analogy to a nucleus. Any time when an organism is formed from multiple smaller organisms that learned to combine synergistically, is likely to have artifacts from that union like our cellular organelles or bacteria in the gut. Evolution is likely to exist in any self-replicating lifeform whether created through abiogenes

    • by XSpud (801834)

      If we just look at empirical facts, the probability of finding life twice in the same solar system is not huge.

      I'm interested as to how you come up with this conclusion - what are the facts that indicate a low probability?

      As far as I am aware we know very little about abiogenesis - all we have are a few models describing how life might have started and until we know more, how can we say whether the probability of life on Mars at some point is low or high?

      The reason we care about whether life existed on Mars is that it might tell us a bit more about how life started on Earth. There's really so little we know about co

      • by giladpn (1657217)
        Umm, just to set things straight, I certainly don't think its about magic. Evolution happened. Maybe you believe Darwin was exactly right, maybe you are a neo-Darwinist looking to do better, but either way Evolution has plenty of empirical proof on its side.

        We do have some empirical info. For example:
        - the failure of radio astronomy to detect signals coming from other civilizations
        - the calculations being done by several people, based on evolutionary science and bio-chemistry, of the probability of l
    • +1 Hypocritical "science"

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TapeCutter (624760) *
      "If we just look at empirical facts, the probability of finding life twice in the same solar system is not huge."

      Hey Eienstien, that's not an emprical fact. It's not even a statistic, it's an anecdote, a single data point from a virtually infinite population of solar systems.
  • ... that we've already transferred terrestrial bacteria via the robots that we've sent there?

    I think, if it's possible (may not be, because of the trip), it puts science and Mars in general in an interesting situation.

    • I would put the chances that probes have already sent some microscopic earthlings to Mars as highly unlikely, but not impossible. The strains of bacteria used in this experiment are able to survive many conventional sterilization procedures. The Bacillus pumilus strain used in this particular experiment was in fact Bacillus pumilus-SAFR032. That's Spacecraft Assembly Facility Resistant Isolate 32, endospores of which were originally discovered in the JPL Spacecraft Assembly Facility, after the room had b
  • OK, TFA suggests that Martian soil could harbor dessicated bacterial spores that don't do anything. They don't reproduce, they aren't active, they're just sitting there inert. And that's pretty cool from the standpoint that we can dig up the remains of a former Martian ecosystem that existed long ago and far away.

    But, for the average taxpayer interested in funding missions, NASA, rocketry, exploration and grand scale achievements, that is pretty much a yawner.

    There is no way at all that anyone representing

  • by cpscotti (1032676) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:03PM (#29952546)
    We should just send containers full of bacterias and wild things there... and see what grows.. In fact I think we should send bacteria-filled pods to as many planets/asteroids we can afford to.. this should be cheap.. Populate the whole thing..
    Rather than maintaining the question "is there life out there?" we should just force the most pleasant answer:
    "Yes.. and we did it!"
  • methane on mars (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Gearoid_Murphy (976819) on Monday November 02, 2009 @02:35PM (#29953744)
    The levels of Methane on Mars are much higher than expected http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars#Methane [wikipedia.org] . If bacertia could easily survive under the soil in the red planet, than that could explain the source of methane.
  • It seems that if the conditions permit certain strains of bacteria to live for a while, that almost guarantees that a million years later the planet would be covered with bacteria perfectly adapted for the environment. The harsher conditions and greater difficulty pulling energy out of the environment might result in equilibrium being reached at a much less active biosphere than on Earth, but it seems almost inevitable. I guess the critical question is how realistic is it that bacteria have survived the t
    • "I guess the critical question is how realistic is it that bacteria have survived the trip from Earth to Mars on the backs of meteorites?"

      The solar wind offers another transport mechanisim that doesn't need metorites. It could simply blow spores off the top of Earth's atmosphere in the direction of Mars, like a giant dandylion[sic] without the stalk.
  •     Mars is dead because it's magnetic field stopped after it's cores cooled. When a planet has no magnetic field, charged particles from the sun bombard the planet stripping the atmosphere. Mars' surface gets nasty amounts of radiation from the sun. If we could find a way to heat the cores again we could grow anything we wanted on the surface in 20 million years or so.

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "That's funny ..." -- Isaac Asimov

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