Scientists have identified certain Antarctic microbes that survive on nothing but atmospheric energy. This could change the way we look at aliens and the understanding of how life can be sustained in inhospitable conditions outside Earth.
A report by Newsweek (NW) mentions how a team of researchers from Australia and New Zealand conducted experiments on soil samples collected from the eastern coast of Antarctica which is ice-free. The intent was to find out how bacteria and other microscopic life forms are able to survive in such conditions.
In their research, they were able to identify two types of bacteria that have never been identified before — WPS-2 and AD3. "They were in extremely high abundance which was never observed before," said University of New South Wales's Belinda Ferrari, the senior author of the study, to NW.
"So that's why we then decided to carry out genomics to gain insights into what these bacteria do."
The study found that WPS-2 and AD3 actually do not need anything to live and survive. They derive all their energy and carbon –the only nutrition they require– directly from the air by extracting it from free hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. This means that it is actually possible for life to flourish in other planets, needing only an atmosphere with the right gasses.
"The big question has been how the microbes can survive when there is little water, the soils are very low in organic carbon and there is a very little capacity to produce energy from the sun via photosynthesis during the winter darkness," Ferrari said. "We found that the Antarctic microbes have evolved mechanisms to live on air instead."
Antarctica is the kind of place that really has no real means to support life. There is heavy UV radiation, it is one of the driest places on Earth, the temperatures are torturous, and even the presence of carbon and nitrogen is limited, notes the report. In spite of this, scientists found a surprising diversity of life thriving there. Such life forms are often described as extremophiles.
These bacteria have actually evolved genes that give them a certain affinity towards hydrogen and carbon monoxide, researchers say. They simply suck up all the energy they need from the air and do it quickly enough to survive and flourish.
Such extreme life forms have been studied in Antarctica, in super-hot volcanoes, lakes in Canada, and even in acidic pools in Ethiopia. These are conditions that are particularly non-Earth like. The report, in fact, mentions that these conditions are comparable to several other planets and moons that could possibly support life.
The search for life is on and researchers seem to have zeroed in on about seven places in the solar system that could actually hold life. And, going by this new discovery, it might not take too long to identify life outside the Earth.