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UMass researchers find environment on Earth that mimics Mars geochemically and supports ancient life form

AMHERST, Mass. Deep below the surface of the Beverhead Mountains of Idaho, a research team led by Derek Lovley, head of the microbiology department at the University of Massachusetts, and Francis H. Chappelle of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has found an unusual community of microoganisms that may hold the key to understanding how life could survive on Mars. Their findings are spelled out in the Jan. 17 issue of the journal Nature (vol. 415).

The microbial community we found in Idaho is unlike any previously described on Earth, said Lovley. This is as close as we have come to finding life on Earth under geological conditions most like those expected below the surface of Mars.

Life requires water and an energy source. The primary energy source for life on earth is sunlight. Plants convert sunlight energy to organic matter that other organisms then use for fuel. On Mars and other planets or moons in our solar system on which life might exist, liquid water is only available below the surface where there is no sunlight. So, if there is life, it must sustain itself with alternative energy sources. This study demonstrates, for the first time, that certain microorganisms can thrive in the absence of sunlight by using hydrogen gas released from deep in the Earths surface as their energy source.

Lovley added: The microbial community found at the Idaho site is remarkably similar to what geochemists have postulated might be found below the surface of Mars, based on what they know of Martian subsurface chemistry. Now that such a community has been discovered, we can use it to test hypotheses about hydrogen-based subsurface life, and use these findings to develop strategies for searching for similar microbial communities on other planets.

According to Lovley, geologists and microbiologists have searched for at least a decade for a community of microorganisms on Earth that could survive on hydrogen, somewhere underground, away from sunl
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Contact: Paula Hartman Cohen
phcohen@admin.umass.edu
413-545-2987
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
16-Jan-2002


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