Newfound species shows it’s possible to survive on nothing more than the chemicals in air.
Bacteria discovered on the icy continent of Antarctica is set to change the way humanity looks for alien life on other planets.
To date, our search for habitable worlds that could host alien life has been guided by what we know about life-conducive conditions on Earth. But in a new breakthrough, researchers have discovered a bacterium in Antarctica that can survive solely off chemicals in the air.
The microscopic organisms can survive off just hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide — opening up new possibilities about the existence of extraterrestrial life forms living in harsh conditions.
Antarctica is among the most extreme environments on Earth and it was previously thought that the stresses of freezing temperatures, limited carbon, nitrogen and water availability along with strong UV radiation restricted life.
But new research reported in the journal Nature has shown the desert soils of Antarctica harbor surprisingly rich microbial communities.
“Here we provide evidence that atmospheric trace gases are the primary energy sources of two Antarctic surface soil communities,” researchers wrote.
“We propose that atmospheric H2, CO2 and CO provide dependable sources of energy and carbon to support these communities, which suggests that atmospheric energy sources can provide an alternative basis for ecosystem function to solar or geological energy sources.”
Essentially, the bacteria can survive with little sunlight, no geothermal energy and extremely limited nutrients.
The discovery was the result of DNA sequencing and analysis of soil samples collected from the icy continent.
“Although more extensive sampling is required to verify whether this process is widespread in terrestrial Antarctica and other oligotrophic habitats, our results provide new understanding of the minimal nutritional requirements for life and open the possibility that atmospheric gases support life on other planets,” researchers said.
Astronomers have historically sought out the potential presence of water when looking for planets that could support life, but the bacteria findings show it’s not the only indicator sufficient for life.
Exoplanets that were once not even considered to be candidates to hold life might be reanalyzed to find habitable regions, said lead researcher Dr. Belinda Ferrari.
“This new understanding about how life can still exist in physically extreme and nutrient-starved environments like Antarctica opens up the possibility of atmospheric gases supporting life on other planets,” she said.
ADVANCED ALIEN HUNTING
The conditions necessary for life to exist have evolved as we have grown and learned over time. One of the criteria in considering alien planets as hospitable to life is liquid water. But does the discovery of an organism that essentially survives off of only air change that?
This research team reconstructed the genomes of 23 microbes and was able to identify two species of previously-undiscovered bacteria known as WPS-2 and AD3. Living in the soil with other species, these bacteria survive with little sunlight, no geothermal energy, and extremely limited nutrients. As mostly dormant bacteria, these are the first lifeforms every discovered that survive by eating air.
Ferrari explained that “This new understanding about how life can still exist in physically extreme and nutrient-starved environments like Antarctica opens up the possibility of atmospheric gases supporting life on other planets.”
While life on other planets might look and be nothing like life on Earth, understanding how life can exist in unusual and never-before-seen circumstances will push us forward to concretely discovering alien life and better understanding where and how aliens are most likely to exist. Exoplanets that once may not have even been candidates to hold life might be re-analyzed to find habitable regions and the potential to hold life. It is apparent that the better we understand life on Earth, the more equipped we are to search for alien life.
“This Discovery Could Change the Way We Search for Alien Life” was originally published by Futurism, LLC on Dec. 8, 2017 by Chelsea Gohd. Copyright 2017. Futurism, LLC. All rights reserved.