The find cautiously suggests that similar discoveries await Mars.

An international team of researchers has made a special discovery in the Atacama Desert in Chile. In the desert – known as the driest place on earth – wet clay has been discovered about 12 inches deep. And a wide range of microorganisms have been found in that clay.

Thirty species
“The clay layers are inhabited by micro-organisms,” says researcher Alberto G. Fairén. Analysis shows that there are at least 30 different types of microbes and archaea (unique single-celled organisms that are also called primal bacteria).

The find shows once again that life is possible in many – in our eyes not immediately hospitable – places. But the discovery of microbes in underground clay layers also has implications for life elsewhere in our solar system, Fairén argues. For example, it is not inconceivable that underground clay layers on Mars in the past also harbored microbes – or possibly even still harbor them.

Atacama and Mars
The Atacama Desert is generally viewed as an area similar to Mars in many ways. The area is also very dry and just like Mars – which, like the Atacama Desert, was once a lot warmer and wetter – rich in clay minerals. These clay minerals are particularly interesting for astrobiologists, because they arise from the interaction between water and rock and thus testify to the (former) presence of water, which in turn is an important precondition for the creation and maintenance of life as we know it. . In addition, any traces of (decayed) life are fairly well preserved in clay. “That’s why clay is so important,” says Fairén. “Clay conserves organic materials and biomarkers very well and is abundant on Mars.Called Perseverance – will search underground clay for biosignatures (physical or chemical phenomena that can only be caused by the occurrence of life).

Implications
What the research in the Atacama Desert now suggests is that it is quite possible that (traces of) life forms can be found in those underground clay layers on Mars. And that – based on what we see on Earth – they can also be found relatively easily by Mars rovers. In addition, research in the Atacama Desert could come in handy when Perseverance arrives on Mars and actually looks for traces of life. “This paper can guide the search,” Fairén thinks, referring to his study in Scientific Reports magazine . “And reveal where to look and what tools to Fairén and colleagues conducted research in an area of ​​the Atacama Desert also referred to as Yungay. Researchers have previously established that clay can be found below the surface. But it is the first time that scientists have shown that these clay layers are also inhabited. It remains to be seen whether this also applies to underground clay layers on Mars. NASA’s Perseverance is currently on its way to Mars and is expected to arrive in February 2021. In 2023, it will receive reinforcement from Rosalind Franklin , a rover built by the European and Russian space agencies that is also designed to find traces of Martian life up to two meters. can take deep samples.

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