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Extreme life discovery in Yellowstone bodes well for astrobiologists, says Colorado U. study

University of Colorado at Boulder researchers say a bizarre group of microbes found living inside rocks in an inhospitable geothermal environment at Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park could provide tantalizing new clues about ancient life on Earth and help steer the hunt for evidence of life on Mars.

The CU-Boulder research team reported the microbes were discovered in the pores of rocks in a highly acidic environment with high concentrations of metals and silicates at roughly 95 degrees F in Yellowstone's Norris Geyser Basin. The new study shows the microbe communities are subject to fossilization and have the potential to become preserved in the geologic record.

Scientists believe similar kinds of geothermal environments may once have existed on Mars, where astrobiologists have intensified the search for past and present life forms in recent years. A paper by CU-Boulder doctoral student Jeffrey Walker, postdoctoral fellow John Spear and Professor Norman Pace of CU-Boulder's molecular, cellular and developmental biology department and the Center for Astrobiology appears in the April 21 issue of Nature.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

"This is the first description of these microbial communities, which may be a good diagnostic indicator of past life on Mars because of their potential for fossil preservation," said Walker. "The prevalence of this type of microbial life in Yellowstone means that Martian rocks associated with former hydrothermal systems may be the best hope for finding evidence of past life there."

Located about 20 miles northwest of Yellowstone Lake, Norris Geyser Basin is considered to be the hottest and most active geyser basin in Yellowstone and perhaps the world. It also is extremely acidic, according to the researchers.

"The pores in the rocks where these creatures live has a pH value of one, which dissolves nails," said Pace. "This is another ex
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20-Apr-2005


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