Astrobiologists, meet the ‘extremophiles’ of Chile’s Atacama Desert

The otherworldly conditions of the driest place on earth – and the existence of life six feet underground – has Chilean scientists dreaming of life on Mars.

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile bewitches and amazes – even an inch of rain a year sends the landscape into an explosion of wildflowers. But generally, there’s no rain: just dusty roads, stunning night views of the starry skies and an other-worldly moonscape.

Or maybe “Mars-scape” would be more appropriate: scientists at Chile’s Universidad Católica del Norte and Spain’s Center of Astrobiology have discovered microbes in the Atacama that survive in conditions similar to what might be found on Mars today, raising hopes – again – for finding life on Mars.

The region has been declared a “microbial oasis” for the different microorganisms found in some of the most extreme conditions imaginable: six feet under hyper-saline substrates in the desert, without access to oxygen or sunlight.

“Microorganisms had been found here before, in surface areas of the Atacama Desert, but never at this depth. The work we did here was to drill down through different layers of the soil,” said Alex Echeverría, Chilean biologist and one of the scientific investigators.

“These are microorganisms that have been there a very long time, locked into layers that have been accumulating,” Echeverría added.

The bi-national team discovered the existence of these “extremophiles” – so named for their affinity for extreme conditions – with the help of the Signs of Life Detector, or SOLID. The instrument was developed to identify biological material, including “the building blocks life” such as DNA, proteins and sugars, in extreme conditions.

Spanish researcher Víctor Parro said the discovery has exciting implications for the possibility of life on Mars. “If there are similar microbes [on Mars], we will be able to find them with instruments like SOLID.”