Mars soil may be toxic to alien life

Mars from space

"Our observations show that the surface of present-day Mars is highly deleterious to cells, caused by a toxic cocktail of oxidants, iron oxides, perchlorates and UV irradiation", the report added. Science fiction authors have been imagining life on Mars for generations, and scientists have been looking for signs of life on the red planet for decades. And researchers have been optimistic that their presence could support bacterial life on Mars.

The discovery of the presence of perchlorates on Mars several years ago nearly dashed all hope that scientists had of finding signs of life on the planet (if it had existed) as these chemical compounds are powerful oxidizing agents.

This was a bit surprising for the researchers because the strain of bacteria used, Bacillus subtilis, belongs to a genus that actually does fine in the presence of perchlorates, as studies of the microbes in terrestrial environments have confirmed.

But Wadsworth and Cockrell found that perchlorates can also be activated by ultraviolet (UV) light, without heat at all.

The behaviour of the chemical compounds called perchlorates that are present in the Martian soil, was studied by the researchers at the University of Edinburgh in the UK.

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Mars is a lousy place to try to live-what with the paralyzing cold, the blistering radiation and the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere. They found that they are, meaning it's unlikely bacteria could survive on the planet's surface. It turned out that in combination with ultraviolet radiation, the toxicity of the compounds increases, making them deadly for microorganisms.

They found that, when exposed to UV light whilst in environmental conditions mimicking those on Mars, the chemicals can kill bacteria commonly carried by spacecraft. In fact, they died within 30 seconds. Upon adding in other components found in Martian soil, iron oxide and hydrogen peroxide, the results were even worse: Bacteria were killed 11 times faster than with just perchlorates. This makes the surface "microbe-killers".

That doesn't completely rule out the possibility that bacteria may exist on Mars.

"Our findings have important implications for the possible contamination of Mars with bacteria and other materials from space missions", said Jennifer Wadsworth from Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy.

A new study might throw a wrench into plans to establish a human colony on Mars, whose surface is "more uninhabitable than previously thought".

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