Mars Surface May Be Too Toxic For Microbial Life

Posted July 08, 2017

When Wadsworth exposed her bacteria to a Martian dose of both perchlorate and UV rays, they were dead within 30 seconds.

Scientists might have finally lain to rest the eternal question: "Is there life on Mars?". If they can't survive there, it significantly lowers our chances of finding life on Mars - life that looks similar to organisms on Earth at least.

We've suspected that Mars was home to perchlorates since the Viking Lander missions four decades ago; the discovery was confirmed by more recent rovers.

Wadsworth: We discovered that percholorate, a compound that is usually only activated at high temperatures, can also be activated with only UV light. These are the chemicals found in Martian soil.

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In order to determine whether the found substance is good or bad for life, postgraduate student Jennifer Wadsworth and Professor Charles Cockell, both of the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy chose to recreate Mars conditions and soil to see whether Earth friendly bacteria can survive. In turn, they made a decision to delve deeper on its effect on Bacillus subtilis - a common bacteria often found on spacecrafts (via Daily Mail).

Mars may have once been warm and full of water, but today it is dry and cold. They found that they are, meaning it's unlikely bacteria could survive on the planet's surface.

The findings also mean that if we're to find any signs of life now on Mars, we'll probably have to dig. However, this same substance can also simultaneously be toxic to the same bacteria it feeds, which depends exclusively on the presence of ultraviolet radiation and Mars has that in abundance.

"We report the significant bacteriocidal effects of UV-irradiated perchlorate on life at ambient temperatures and under Martian conditions", the study's authors write.

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The findings could have implications for planetary protection, specifically concerning the potential contamination of Mars by robotic and human exploration.

The surface of Mars is more uninhabitable than previously thought, according to researchers in Scotland.

When iron oxides and hydrogen peroxide were further added to the mix - two more chemicals that are common on Mars, with iron oxides responsible for the abundant red color on the planet - the perchlorates became even more deadly, killing 10 times as many cells.

If the salty brines trickling across the rocks on Mars really are concentrated perchlorate streams, that's not an environment fit for sustaining life.

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