Is Life Locked in Ice on Mars?

By Alison Klesman | November 15, 2017 11:26 am


Missions from above and on the surface have been searching for life on Mars for years. But there’s an important question worth asking, amidst this vital search: If life once thrived there, how long could even extreme microorganisms survive in Mars’ current harsh conditions? And where might they best survive?

A group of researchers from Lomonosov Moscow State University has just released their answer to those questions. 

The paper, published in the journal Extremophiles, focused on naturally occurring microbes in Arctic permafrost sedimentary rocks, one of the best analogues we have to martian regolith here on Earth. The microbes were exposed to Mars-like conditions such as intense gamma radiation (10,000,000 rads [100 kilograys]), extremely low temperatures and pressures (-58 F [-50 C]; 1 Torr [133 Pascals]), and dehydration. The result? A high number of the microbes survived the harsh simulated climate of Mars, raising hopes that microbes on the Red Planet might also survive within the icy regolith well enough for searching rovers or — someday — human scientists to recover them.

The study was conducted using a constant climate chamber and, the authors stress, natural communities of microbes, rather than pure cultures. Studying natural communities allows for a better comparison with reality, allowing for greater biodiversity and increasing the similarities of the studied group to any microbes potentially on Mars.

“In a nutshell, we have conducted a simulation experiment that well covered the conditions of cryoconservation in Martian regolith,” said Vladimir S. Cheptsov, a post-graduate student at the Lomonosov MSU Faculty of Soil Science, Department of Soil Biology, and an author on the paper, in a press release. “The results of the study indicate the possibility of prolonged cryoconservation of viable microorganisms.”

Following irradiation, the total count of prokaryotic and metabolically active bacterial cells remained the same, though the types of bacteria most dominant in the samples had changed. An increase in a particular population of bacteria of the genus Arthrobacter suggests these bacteria may be the most resistant to the harsh conditions introduced.

This study is remarkable especially in light of the fact that no previous studies have found living prokaryotes following radiation doses of 8,000,000 rad (80 kGy), lower than the dose used in this study. This is the first time microbes have been shown to survive such high levels of gamma radiation, possibly owing to the biodiversity of the natural sample.


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So how about some numbers? “Taking into account the intensity of radiation in the Mars regolith, the data obtained by us makes it possible to assume that hypothetical Mars ecosystems could be conserved in anabiotic state in the surface layer of regolith (protected from UV rays) for at least 1.3-2 million years, at a depth of two meters for no less than 3.3 million years, and at a depth of five meters for at least 20 million years,” Cheptsov said.

That’s a nice, long time for life to survive, dramatically upping the chances that we may someday find what we’re looking for in the icy red soil of Mars.

He further added that the study need not only apply to Mars. As searches for life throughout our solar system, in particular on icy moons, ramp up, these results “can also be applied to assess the possibility of detecting viable microorganisms at other objects of the solar system and within small bodies in outer space,” he said.


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  • Erik Bosma

    I guess I’m just stupid because for the life of me, I can’t figure out why we would want to live on Mars or interact with any possible very primitive Martian life forms, ie bacteria, and simple ones at that. That’s a hell of a lot of money being spent. Mars is a loser. It can’t and will never support life unless we go to the extreme expense of building underground dwelling places. We could try to terraform it but in no time it would lose its atmosphere again and lose the ability, again, to support life. Imagine if we would have spent that money on technology to improve our lot on Earth. It’s all we have. Imagination is great but has its limits.

    • The History Man

      Absolutely right! The irony is that we are unable to prevent desertification, soil erosion and the massive loss of what was once good farming land on Earth, let alone make additional living space on vast areas of Earth where conditions are balmy and ‘easy’ compared to those of Mars. And with everything we need, such as atmosphere, water and so on, close at hand.
      If we can’t even do this on Earth, or save our planet from irreversible warming, talking of establishing colonies on Mars is sheer hubristic fantasy.

      • StanChaz

        I would not call it colonies or colonization.
        I’d call it contamination and infestation – by us.
        I would not be surprised if our planet was quarantined at some point by wiser beings….

    • OWilson

      Most of the Earth is ocean. A lot of it is frozen polar ice.

      Readily accessible, and far cheaper to build overload accommodation in the unlikely event it should ever be required.

      Remember the whole human race could fit into a small country at the present levels of urban density.

      Terraforming planets and building biospheres on Mars are concepts in the common “”cool” culture of Star Trek aficionados!

      And, of course. completely impractical, given the present CBA.

  • Uncle Al

    What is inside Jupiter’s Europa? A 5% cobalt-cemented tungsten carbide (d = 15.0 g/cm³) long rod penetrator a meter wide and ten meters long massing 117.8 tonnes impacts at 10 mi/s. (mv²)/2 = 34.6 kilotons. The dart punctures the balloon. Sometime later a lab is landed to see what squirted out. Than would be interesting. (Shape the tip and aspect ratio as you will.)

  • mechtheist

    What about life in deep rock? Isn’t there more biomass in rock here on earth than on the surface?

  • OWilson

    Let’s face it!

    Until we have examined every piece of Mars, at every level, we can not say with certainty that there is no life on Mars!

    Then there are the other couple hundred thousand decent size rocks in the solar system!

    (Many) more studies needed! :)

  • Mike Smith

    Stories like this one prove one thing about a government ran space program. They waste money! We have know for decades there was ice at the poles on Mars and in water we might find life. Since the big question has always been “Is there life on Mars?” shouldn’t we have sent a probe there first? Yet we haven’t sent a probe to the poles to find out. That is a foolish way to run a Mars research program if you ask me. I personally don’t believe there is any life on Mars and NASA must feel the same. From NASA’s point of view it is better to just have people wondering and hoping there is life on Mars because that keeps the funding coming in than to find out there isn’t and funding stops.


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