Bacteria Thrives In
Simulated Mars Conditions

An exotic Earth bacteria that thrives in laboratory conditions mimicking the environment of Mars is raising fresh hope that the Red Planet once harbored life, a researcher says.
Timothy A. Kral of the University of Arkansas says that a methane-making, oxygen-hating microbe "grows just fine and dandy" in a simulated Martian environment that could not support most forms of life on Earth.
Kral, who will present his research Wednesday at the national meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, says he and a colleague, Curtis Bekkum, created an environment that contained no oxygen, but was bathed in carbon dioxide and hydrogen gases.
The soil in the experiment resembles what is known about Martian dirt, with no organic nutrients and only a small trace of water.
"We made the assumption that there is liquid water beneath the surface," says Kral. Many planet experts believe Mars once had great amounts of water and that traces of it still remain beneath the surface.
Into this mix the researchers placed a group of microbes called methanogens, a type of bacteria that on Earth lives in places where there is no oxygen, such as deep under the ground or around sea floor vents.
All of these types of microbes, he says, use nitrogen and hydrogen to make methane, a natural gas that can be used as fuel.
To determine whether the bacteria lived in the simulated Martian environment, Kral measured the amount of methane produced inside the sealed culture dishes.
"It made methane just like it does on Earth," he says. "It grows just fine in the Martian conditions."
Although the experiment is far from the final answer, Kral says the fact that the microbes thrived "cautiously increases our belief that life on Mars is possible, or at least it was possible."
The experiment also raises the possibility the microbes could be used to alter Mars' cool climate, Kral says. Microbes sent to the planet could help methane collect in the atmosphere, eventually creating a greenhouse effect, he says.
Methane also could provide the energy for a human colony on Mars, says Kral. The gas can be used as fuel and could even be processed into a rocket propellant.