Toxic Compounds May Sterilize Martian Soil

This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight. Credit NASA  JPL-Caltech  Handout

The results were definitive: Bacteria were wiped out twice as quickly when perchlorates were present.

The chances of finding aliens may be impossible, if new research is to be believed.

Further tests found that the UV rays broke down the perchlorate into other chemicals, namely hypochlorite and chlorite, and it is these that appear to be so destructive to the bacteria. So they exposed test tubes of a common bacteria, Bacillus subtilis, to conditions similar to ones they might encounter on Mars.

The scientists followed-up with another round of experiments that looked at the toxic effects of iron oxides and hydrogen peroxide, which are also found in Martian soil.

The impact of the radiation, combined with certain types of compounds in the soil, resulted in sterilizing the upper layers. But a recent study seems to prove otherwise. Lynn Rothschild of NASA Ames Research Center told Gizmodo she and her team recently conducted research that suggests "bacteria could withstand the perchlorates and salts on Mars".

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The hope for Martian life took another blow today.

"I can't speak for life in the past", said Wadsworth. As we start to look at lower radiation environments on other planets in search of life, it's important we build up our knowledge of such conditions on life as we know it, which will help us understand what such ecosystems might look like. They had a pretty generous prerequisite for the bacteria to be considered viable - anything more than zero cells that survived.

Wadsworth: We discovered that percholorate, a compound that is usually only activated at high temperatures, can also be activated with only UV light. On the plus side, it means that any microbes that hitch a ride on landers sent to Mars will be swiftly destroyed on the surface, alleviating concerns about contaminating a potentially inhabited planet. Some argue that perchlorates are a strong indication of the likelihood of life on the Red Planet. After that, three spacecraft, including the Curiosity rover (which is still exploring Mars) affirmed the finding. This makes the surface "microbe-killers".

"They render the present-day surface more uninhabitable than previously thought and demonstrate the low probability of survival". Although we have our own problems with perchlorate here on Earth - too much of it can mess with the thyroid gland - the new paper suggests that perchlorate is particularly nasty on Mars.

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