These Hawaiian Microbes Could Have Something In Common With Life on Mars

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  • Hawaii, geologically like ancient Mars, offers researchers a place to study the possibility of life in Mars’ past.
  • The older the lava tubes, the richer the microbial diversity.
  • Microbial ecosystems in different Hawaiian caves are genetically distinct.

    A group of researchers spent 15 studying the unique microbial ecosystems within Hawaii’s lava tubes, geothermal caves and fumaroles, stinky sulfurous openings in the Earth’s crust near volcanoes. And they’ve found amazing diversity between sites while continually discovering this new microbial “dark matter,” previously unidentified microbes, along the way. These discoveries may indicate the variety of microbes here on Earth, but they also give an extra glimmer of hope to those anxious to find evidence that life was once tucked away on Mars.

    The recent Islands Within Islands study published in Frontiers investigated the lava caves and tubes of Hawaii, finding a high level of microbial diversity. In the study, 70 samples were collected from lava tubes and geothermal sites on Hawaii between 2006 and 2009 and again between 2017 and 2019. Researchers found the evolutionary development of microbes was higher in sites from older lava flows than younger flows.

    Lava caves and tubes form when molten lava on the surface cools and crusts over, while the lava beneath continues to flow. The pockets left behind form into caves and tubes. Temperature and humidity often vary less in these spaces than above ground. High microbial diversity is found in these types of caves the world over, but especially in Hawaii, considered a “biodiversity hotspot” that offers a spectrum of environmental conditions.

    Research opportunities in Hawaii abound, with the microbial dark matter aplenty, giving researchers the opportunity to continue exploring a largely unknown world. And that unknown world has researchers also thinking of Mars.

    “Volcanic systems in Hawaii are geologically like those on ancient Mars, which had active volcanoes and fumaroles,” the study’s authors write. “With these geological similarities, Hawaiian volcanic environments can provide some insight into the possibility of life on Mars in its ancient past and how microbial communities could survive today on Mars in lava caves.”

    By studying the older Hawaiian lava caves, up to 800 years old, the team of researchers from across the country, including the University of Hawaii, believe they can see how the colonies of microbes grow more complex over time.

    “This paper brought together scientists who have worked in Hawaiian lava caves for decades, and it reveals the novelty and complexity of bacterial communities in places most people think of as too hostile for life,” Stuart Donachie, University of Hawaii Mānoa professor and study co-author, says in a news release. “Our results underscore that remarkable microbial diversity and novelty exist in Hawaii. We’re now building on our findings by exploring how bacteria cultivated from these caves function in conditions that mimic those believed to have occurred on Mars, and long ago on Earth.”

    As scientific knowledge of microbes in Hawaii continues to advance, it becomes more apparent that studying microbes in the natural world is the best opportunity for understanding their development on our planet. And it hints at life having potential beyond Earth.

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