Researchers discover rebounding microbial life in Earth's driest desert

Scientists from Washington State University have made a discovery in the driest desert on Earth that could mean microbial life is hiding on Mars. The team of scientists found microbial life rebounding in the driest desert on Earth, the South American Atacama Desert. In that location, decades can pass without any rainfall.

That desert is said to be the most similar place on earth to Mars and the team wanted to know if microbes in the soil are permanent residents of the location or if they are blown in from other areas by the wind. The scientists found that the hyper-arid Atacama Desert is a habitable environment for microorganisms.

Specialized bacteria that live in the soil can go dormant for decades without water. When it does rain the bacteria is able to reactivate and then reproduce. The team says that if life on Earth can survive in such an arid place, life could be surviving on Mars in a similar way.

When the scientists first went to the Atacama Desert in 2015, it rained. The shower was extremely rare and allowed the team to detect an explosion of biological activity in the desert soil. Using sterilized spoons and other instruments, they were able to sample soil at various depths to identify different microbial communities.

The results of the study found specialized indigenous species of microbial life well adapted to the harsh environment. This was the first time that anyone had identified a persistent form of life living in the arid soil of the Atacama. Follow-up studies in 2016 and 2017 found that the microbial communities were reverting to a dormant state after the moisture went away.

SOURCE: Washington State University