Bacteria may have traveled from Mars to Earth, changing what we know about how life formed

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A newly published study notes that a type of bacteria was able to survive in space outside the International Space Station, opening up the possibility that life could have traveled from Mars.

The research, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, notes that dried Deinococcus bacteria were able to survive for three years outside the ISS on aluminum plates outside the floating space laboratory. It gives credence to the idea of “panspermia,” the hypothesis that life on Earth originated from microorganisms in outer space.

“The origin of life on Earth is the biggest mystery of human beings,” study co-author Dr. Akihiko Yamagishi said in a statement. “Scientists can have totally different points of view on the matter. Some think that life is very rare and happened only once in the Universe, while others think that life can happen on every suitable planet. If panspermia is possible, life must exist much more often than we previously thought.”

The Deinococcus bacteria on the surface of the plates died, but “it created a protective layer for the bacteria beneath ensuring the survival of the colony,” the statement added.

The International Space Station
The International Space Station.JAXA/NASA

The experts found that Deinococcus, sometimes known as “Conan the Bacterium” for its ability to survive harsh conditions, was floating 7.5 miles above the Earth.

Using the survival data for the bacteria between one and three years, Yamagashi and the other researchers found that those 0.5 millimeters and thicker would live for anywhere between 15 and 45 years on the ISS. Those that were thicker than 1 millimeter (a size where Deinococcus is known to form large colonies) could live for up to 8 years in space conditions, the researchers suggested.

“The results suggest that radioresistant Deinococcus could survive during the travel from Earth to Mars and vice versa, which is several months or years in the shortest orbit,” Yamagishi added.

The findings were part of the Japanese Tanpopo mission, of which Yamagishi is the principal investigator.

Several previous studies have discussed the idea of panspermia, including one earlier this year, that suggested comets may have delivered the “essential element” for life on Earth.

In 2019, NASA found sugar molecules on two different meteorites, adding credence to the idea that asteroids play a crucial role in supporting life.

NASA’s Perseverance rover, which recently left Earth on its way to the Red Planet, will perform a number of tasks while there, including looking for fossilized evidence of extraterrestrial life.

NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.

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