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Scientists: Arctic bacteria discovered on Earth may prove life can thrive on Mars

Scientists say a newly discovered form of life found living in subzero temperatures of –15 Celsius may resemble life living underground on Mars.

Bacteria found living in the permafrost of the High Arctic seem to thrive in an environment long thought to be nearly inhospitable to all forms of life. However, it now seems that a Canadian-led team of researchers from McGill University have uncovered a new microbe, Planococcus halocryophilus, capable of reproducing at a record-setting temperature of –15 Celsius.

Traveling to the far north island of Ellesmere, MGill University microbiologists Lyle Whyte and Nadia Mykytczuk, collected samples of the microbe, placing them in simulated environments, which were then cultured.

It remains unclear how the microbes have adapted to the extreme cold. Researchers say additional studies could show the microbes are capable of living and reproducing at even colder temperatures, which may further rewrite the record books. Current experiments have shown the organisms remain alive even as the thermometer drops to –25 degrees Celsius.

Preliminary research seems to indicate that microbes have evolved to develop cold-resistant proteins and especially well-adapted membranes. Examining the genome and cellular structure, the researchers were able to begin determining the exact evolutionary changes undertaken by the microbes over the past several hundreds of thousands of years, although additional research is needed.

While researchers were able to regrow specimens fairly easily, the team noted that it was incredibly difficult maintaining the microbes in a liquid environment at such cold temperatures. However, once they succeeded, they found the bacteria grew at a stunning rate, doubling in numbers once every 40 days. While the reproductive figures far exceed those observed in nature, Whyte says the microbes would still probably reproduce 100 to 1,000 times more slowly.

While the study captured the attention of astronomers, it captured NASA’s attention for an entirely different reason. The space agency reportedly offered its assistance in ensuring the samples were not contaminated. According to researchers, the original specimens came from a NASA-drilled ice core, which was part of an experiment to examine drilling conditions on Mars.

The discovery could have otherworldly ramifications. Experts say chances of discovering life on other planets, including Mars, may very well depend on life’s ability to exist and thrive in conditions once thought to be inhabitable. While scientists have long posited that various forms of life could exist at temperatures both hot and cold, relatively few have been discovered. The discovery likely raises the likelihood of discovering signs of life outside of Earth. Some experts suggest bacteria life may lurk on  Saturn’s moon Enceladus or Jupiter’s Io.