Life on Mars? Scientists Find Mars Has Right Ingredients for Present-Day Microbial Life Beneath Its Surface

Perspective View Moreux Crater

Image of the surface of Mars (Moreux crater taken by the Mars Express orbiter. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

New research suggests that rocks in the Martian crust could produce the same kind of chemical energy that supports microbial life deep beneath Earth’s surface.

As NASA’s Perseverance rover begins its search for ancient life on the surface of Mars, a new study suggests that the Martian subsurface might be a good place to look for possible present-day life on the Red Planet.

The study, published in the journal Astrobiology, looked at the chemical composition of Martian meteorites — rocks blasted off of the surface of Mars that eventually landed on Earth. The analysis determined that those rocks, if in consistent contact with water, would produce the chemical energy needed to support microbial communities similar to those that survive in the unlit depths of the Earth. Because these meteorites may be representative of vast swaths of the Martian crust, the findings suggest that much of the Mars subsurface could be habitable.

Exploring Kidd Creek Mine

Jesse Tarnas, a Brown University graduate and postdoctoral research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, work in Canada’s Kidd Creek Mine. Water in the depths of the mine that hasn’t seen the light of day in a billion years was shown to harbor rock-eating life. New research shows that the subsurface of Mars has the right ingredients to harbor similar forms of life. Credit: Jesse Tarnas

“The big implication here for subsurface exploration science is that wherever you have groundwater on Mars, there’s a good chance that you have enough chemical energy to support subsurface microbial life,” said Jesse Tarnas, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the study while completing his Ph.D. at Brown University. “We don’t know whether life ever got started beneath the surface of Mars, but if it did, we think there would be ample energy there to sustain it right up to today.”

In recent decades, scientists have discovered that Earth’s depths are home to a vast biome that exists largely separated from the world above. Lacking sunlight, these creatures survive using the byproducts of chemical reactions produced when rocks come into contact with water.

One of those reactions is radiolysis, which occurs when radioactive elements within rocks react with water trapped in pore and fracture space. The reaction breaks water molecules into their constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The liberated hydrogen is dissolved in the remaining groundwater, while minerals like pyrite (fool’s gold) soak up free oxygen to form sulfate minerals. Microbes can ingest the dissolved hydrogen as fuel and use the oxygen preserved in the sulfates to “burn” that fuel.

Astrobiology Mars Has Right Ingredients for Microbial Life

New research showing that the subsurface of Mars is potentially habitable will be featured on the cover of the journal Astrobiology. Credit: Astrobiology/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In places like Canada’s Kidd Creek Mine, these “sulfate-reducing” microbes have been found living more than a mile underground, in water that hasn’t seen the light of day in more than a billion years. Tarnas has been working with a team co-led by Brown University professor Jack Mustard and Professor Barbara Sherwood Lollar of the University of Toronto to better understand these underground systems, with an eye toward looking for similar habitats on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. The project, called Earth 4-D: Subsurface Science and Exploration, is supported by the Canadian Institute for Advances Research.

For this new study, the researchers wanted to see if the ingredients for radiolysis-driven habitats could exist on Mars. They drew on data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and other orbiting spacecraft, as well as compositional data from a suite of Martian meteorites, which are representative of different parts of the planet’s crust.

The researchers were looking for the ingredients for radiolysis: radioactive elements like thorium, uranium and potassium; sulfide minerals that could be converted to sulfate; and rock units with adequate pore space to trap water. The study found that in several different types of Martian meteorites, all the ingredients are present in adequate abundances to support Earth-like habitats. This was particularly true for regolith breccias — meteorites sourced from crustal rocks more than 3.6 billion years old — which were found to have the highest potential for life support. Unlike Earth, Mars lacks a plate tectonics system that constantly recycle crustal rocks. So these ancient terrains remain largely undisturbed.

“If we want to think about the possibility of present-day life, the subsurface is absolutely going to be where the action is.”

Jack Mustard Professor in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences

The researchers say the findings help make the case for an exploration program that looks for signs of present-day life in the Martian subsurface. Prior research has found evidence of an active groundwater system on Mars in the past, the researchers say, and there’s reason to believe that groundwater exists today. One recent study, for example, raised the possibility of an underground lake lurking under the planet’s southern ice cap. This new research suggests that wherever there’s groundwater, there’s energy for life.

Tarnas and Mustard say that while there are certainly technical challenges involved in subsurface exploration, they aren’t as insurmountable as people may think. A drilling operation wouldn’t require “a Texas-sized oil rig,” Mustard said, and recent advances in small drill probes could soon put the Martian depths within reach.

“The subsurface is one of the frontiers in Mars exploration,” Mustard said. “We’ve investigated the atmosphere, mapped the surface with different wavelengths of light and landed on the surface in half-a-dozen places, and that work continues to tell us so much about the planet’s past. But if we want to think about the possibility of present-day life, the subsurface is absolutely going to be where the action is.”

Reference: “Earth-like Habitable Environments in the Subsurface of Mars” by J.D. Tarnas, J.F. Mustard, B. Sherwood Lollar, V. Stamenković, K.M. Cannon, J.-P. Lorand, T.C. Onstott, J.R. Michalski, O. Warr, A.M. Palumbo and A.-C. Plesa, 15 April 2021, Astrobiology.
DOI: 10.1089/ast.2020.2386

The research was supported by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

21 Comments on "Life on Mars? Scientists Find Mars Has Right Ingredients for Present-Day Microbial Life Beneath Its Surface"

  1. Well seeing that they are really in the Arizona desert and not on Mars, I would say they found plenty of microbes and other life. Get a life people. Space is fake.

  2. So said the computer generated fake commenter…

  3. There is life on all planets why is this being announced every two years like geez dude

    • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 1:06 pm | Reply

      Scientists – who are the experts – don’t know that.

      You may want to publish your work on the area in a peer review journal, to convince other.

  4. Colin Ferguson | April 26, 2021 at 4:54 am | Reply

    Arizona? As commentator above said, how do you know?

    If logic pyramids are too much, then maybe you should skip the “science-based” vaccine. Send it to folks who follow science in countries less rich than yours.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 1:10 pm | Reply

      The illustration of a Mars like environment is Arizona – and it may not even be related to the paper but happens to be the cover of the publication – but the article claim the work was done in Canada’s Kidd Creek Mine.

      A funny sidetrack, indeed.

  5. Victor Banks | April 26, 2021 at 6:07 pm | Reply

    A acquaintance of mine. In the engineering department is under orders not to discuss or disclose exactly what is going on with the evolution on Mars. There are hidden bases established by beings. That our government along with Russia,Germany and Canada, etc. Collaborated with. There are two known entities that live on Mars. The Reptilians lives in the northern mountains. And the Inaectians lives in the southern desert plain. They are highly intelligent and have underground habitats that are smooth. And ruled by Queens who each have boundaries.And you have ministers who are the instructors and controllers, leaders, etc. The Queen is only protected to ensure the birth and status quo of each sectarian born. They have the order of hierarchy. The Reptilians are creatures who were created from fire. Meaning a radioactive substance. And SATAN IS OF THIS GROUP. And because of this particular element of this group. They have the ability to shapeshift. Thus SATAN can transform into a woman .or any thing that is on the planet. Some creatures have the ability to change their color. And because of this. He got a lot of these creatures to rebel against GOD. !!! THEY believe that they are better than us. So they refuse to bow down. But we were not fully developed. Using all of our gifts.

  6. Clayton Bigsby | April 26, 2021 at 6:07 pm | Reply

    These so-called ‘scientists’ is washin yer brain full of all kinds of nonsense. The good Lord made all us people and were right at the center of the universe. Are you really gonna tell me that a big ol’ space vacuum wouldn’t just suck all the air out of the earth? Gravity aint nothin but hogwash, dont make no sense at all.

  7. Yea right… they’ve been on mars for the past 50 years watch next they will find the glacier of ice in the ocean of water under the sand

  8. Vikram A Chougule | April 27, 2021 at 3:34 am | Reply

    I respect the scientist for the work on mars.But its more important to save earth which is already supporting lives.make earth lets make earth greener and pollution free.lets invent sustainable technologies which supports earth and live.lets purify the wasted water and conserve water.lets plant tree .lets make human free from diseases born by human inventions…..scientist and nature lover

  9. So no evidence whatsoever of any previous technologically advanced life which, like us would have left evidence of re-modelling of the landscape, even after 2 billion years.
    Instructive

  10. Try sending animals on Mars with required life support to survive. Send water to Mars, Use sun rays on Mars to produce energy needed to handle equipments at Mars Develope equipment which converts sun energy in to life saving energy . This will help all Mankind.

  11. Mars is already dried up and lifeless humans can’t destroy it. But no matter where they go to settle in the universe they’ll destroy other planets like they did to beautiful planet earth. Humans are bad news. Unless there are other beings worse than us.

  12. What a bunch a crap , NASA on Mars.you poeple beleive anything you see or hear on tv.

  13. Syed saleem raza | April 29, 2021 at 5:17 pm | Reply

    Planers should think to build under ground structure for living on mars it will provide shield from outside weather change that could be so quick wether change and high speed winds.

  14. Nothing is moving there so humans cant live there.stupid people

  15. Pablo Sagalá | May 1, 2021 at 2:55 pm | Reply

    Gillevinia straata 2006 has been formally nomenclature when we quit from believing Mars dry, circadian cycles were discovered in the Viking labeled release experiments, in systematics remote holotypes were first accepted,band physical means we’re communicated for keeping a film of liquid water at minus 100 *C below zero.

  16. Pablo Sagalá | May 1, 2021 at 2:57 pm | Reply

    Excuse for the typos: nomenclatureD, “band” is “and”.

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