The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are home to the magnificent and creepy Blood Falls. A new study indicates that the region may also host something else: extreme microbial life similar to the alien organisms we expect to find on Mars.
The research, reported in the journal Nature Communications, claims that, although the region is one of the extreme deserts in the world, it may be full of salty, extremely cold groundwater which may also connect surrounding lakes into one massive underground network. This network of saltwater may support previously unknown ecosystems.
The Blood Falls, as the name suggests, is an outflow of saltwater that appears to be red – just like human blood. Scientists have previously offered various explanations for this phenomenon. It was once believed that red algae was the cause of the water’s striking color. Later, it was proven that this unusual appearance is the result of the presence of iron oxides.
The new research shows that scientists have discovered salt solutions, or brines, underneath glaciers, lake beds, and permanently frozen soil. The National Science Foundation (NSF), meanwhile, suggests that the brines may also play a major role in modern biological processes in the Dry Valleys.
“These unfrozen materials appear to be relics of past surface ecosystems and our findings provide compelling evidence that they now provide deep subsurface habitats for microbial life despite extreme environmental conditions,” said the study’s lead author, Jill Mikucki, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Tennessee.
The discovery is extremely significant – not only because it sheds light on previously unexplored ecosystems, but also because it might prove helpful in the search of life elsewhere in the solar system. This is due to the fact that, during the Antarctic summer, the Dry Valleys ecosystem closely resembles the conditions on the surface of Mars.
“Over billions of years of evolution, microbes seem to have adapted to conditions in almost all surface and near-surface environments on Earth. Tiny pore spaces filled with hyper-saline brine staying liquid down to -15 Celsius may pose one of the greatest challenges to microbes,” Slawek Tulaczyk, a glaciologist and coauthor of the study at the University of California, said.
According to Tulaczyk, the electromagnetic data gathered by researchers indicates that the “margins of Antarctica may shelter a vast microbial habitat, in which limits of life are tested by difficult physical and chemical conditions.”
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