Could Life Survive In That Underground Lake We Just Discovered On Mars?

Life is pretty much anywhere there is water on Earth. That doesn't mean the same applies to Mars, though - but it might! Kuznetsova Julia/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 25 Jul 2018, 19:01

Is there life on Mars? We have no idea. We also don’t know whether or not life ever existed on the surface of this once more oxygen-rich, waterlogged world.

The new discovery of a massive lake of subterranean water on the Red Planet, however, has many wondering if this may be where we finally uncover whether or not we share the universe with microbial beasties. So could this lake – one that’s very likely not alone on the planet – be riddled with microbial life?

The short answer, of course, is that we don’t know. We can, however, do a bit of informed speculation to ponder on the possibilities.

It could be unfathomably uninhabitable down there for geological or environmental reasons we haven’t considered or encountered before. At the same time, it could be much like the water we find trapped in similar environments on Earth – and, as the mantra normally goes, where there’s water, there’s life, even if that water is salty, radioactive, icy, or near-boiling.

We obviously haven’t discovered life anywhere other than on Earth, which means we only have one highly limited working model for how life operates, evolves, and adapts. Adapt it has, though: As the science of microbiology has become more advanced, and its participants more daring, we’ve found life belonging to the Bacteria and bizarre Archaea kingdoms – and the more ambiguously defined viruses – everywhere.

We’ve found microscopic critters clinging to the sides of high-temperature deep-sea vents and buried within Earth’s crust, devoid of sunlight. We’ve found them in super-deep mine shafts, getting energy from sulfur that falls off rock being bombarded with radiation.

Archaea, discovered in the 1970s, were first found in near-boiling, highly acidic or alkaline hot springs like this one. Rusla Ruseyn/Shutterstock

We find algae drifting on the wind currents high up in the atmosphere, sometimes blown up there by volcanic eruptions. We have found life trapped in suspended animation in giant gypsum crystals deep underground in cave systems. Viruses, by the way, are found in abundance, especially within Earth’s oceans.

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