Tech UPTechnologyLiving microbes in Mars-like conditions

Living microbes in Mars-like conditions

In an article published in The ISME Journal , a group of scientists from McGill University in Canada has concluded that microbes living in Canada’s High Arctic in Mars-like conditions could survive by eating and they breathe compounds that have been detected on the red planet, such as methane, sulfides, sulfate, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Lost Hammer Spring is a spring located in Nunavut in the Canadian High Arctic . It is one of the coldest and saltiest terrestrial springs known to date. In it, extremely salty water (24% salinity) rises to the surface from a depth of 600 m of permafrost. The spring water always remains below freezing temperatures, about 5 degrees below zero, and contains almost no oxygen (widespread salt deposits and possible cold salt springs. Although previous studies have found evidence of microbes in this type of similar environment to that of Mars, this is one of the few studies where live, active microbes are found.

What form of life could exist on Mars? To try to answer this question, the team of researchers at McGill University, led by Lyle Whyte of the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, has used state-of-the-art genomic tools and single-cell microbiology methods to identify and characterize the new microbial community that lives and is active in this unique spring. Finding the microbes and sequencing their DNA and mRNA was not an easy task for the researchers. “It took us a couple of years to work with the sediment before we were able to successfully detect active microbial communities,” explains Elisse Magnuson, a doctoral student in Whyte’s lab and first author of the paper. “The salinity of the environment interferes with both the extraction and sequencing of microbes, so when we were able to find evidence of active microbial communities, it was a very satisfying experience.”

By isolating and sequencing the DNA of microbes from the spring, the researchers were able to reconstruct the genomes of approximately 110 microorganisms , most of them previously unknown. The genomes have provided information about how these microorganisms survive and thrive in such an extreme environment, giving an idea of what may be happening in similar places. By sequencing the mRNA, the team was able to identify the active genes in the genomes, as well as identify some very unusual microbes with active metabolism.

Without organic matter you can also live

“The microbes we found and describe at Lost Hammer Spring are surprising because, unlike other microorganisms, they don’t depend on organic matter or oxygen to live ,” adds Whyte. “Instead, they survive by eating and breathing simple inorganic compounds like methane, sulfides, sulfate, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, all of which are found on Mars. They can also fix carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. nitrogen from the atmosphere, all of which make them highly adapted to survive and thrive in very extreme environments on Earth and beyond.”

The researchers’ next task will be to cultivate and characterize the most numerous and active microbes and members of this unique microbial community, to better understand how they thrive in the cold and salty environment of Lost Hammer Spring. The researchers hope that this, in turn, will help interpret the enigmatic isotopes of sulfur and carbon that were recently obtained from NASA’s Curiosity rover in Gale Crater on Mars.


Referencia: Magnuson, E., Altshuler, I., Fernández-Martínez, M.Á. et al. 2022. Active lithoautotrophic and methane-oxidizing microbial community in an anoxic, sub-zero, and hypersaline High Arctic spring. The ISME Journal. DOI:

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