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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Pasta-like rocks best bet for life on Mars: Study

A NASA study has found that the rocks on the surface of Mars that look like layers of pasta may be the most obvious sign of life on the red planet.

By: PTI | Washington | Published: May 30, 2019 3:05:42 pm
mars, red planet, Fettuccine, life on mars, sulfuri, sulfurihydrogenibium yellowstonense, bruce fouke, astrobiology, layer of pasta on mars, mars pasta layer, mars sulfuri layer, university of illinois New research reveals that the bacterium Sulfurihydrogenibium yellowstonense thrives in harsh environments with conditions like those expected on Mars. (Image soure: University of Illinois/Tom Murphy)

Rocks on the surface of Mars that look like layers of pasta may be the most obvious sign of life on the Red Planet, a NASA-funded study suggests.

The bacterium that controls the formation of such rocks on Earth is ancient and thrives in harsh environments that are similar to conditions on Mars, according to the study published in the journal Astrobiology.

“It has an unusual name, Sulfurihydrogenibium yellowstonense. We just call it ‘Sulfuri’,” said Bruce Fouke, a professor at the University of Illinois in the US.

The bacterium belongs to a lineage that evolved prior to the oxygenation of Earth roughly 2.35 billion years ago, Fouke said. It can survive in extremely hot, fast-flowing water bubbling up from underground hot springs.

It can withstand exposure to ultraviolet light and survives only in environments with extremely low oxygen levels, using sulphur and carbon dioxide as energy sources.

“Taken together, these traits make it a prime candidate for colonising Mars and other planets,” Fouke said.

Since it catalyses the formation of crystalline rock formations that look like layers of pasta, it would be a relatively easy life form to detect on other planets, he said.

The unique shape and structure of rocks associated with Sulfuri result from its unusual lifestyle, Fouke said.

In fast-flowing water, Sulfuri bacteria latch on to one another “and hang on for dear life,” he said.

“They form tightly wound cables that wave like a flag that is fixed on one end,” he said.

The waving cables keep other microbes from attaching. Sulfuri also defends itself by oozing a slippery mucus.

Also read | Fact Check: Do ‘mushrooms’ on Mars count as evidence of life?

“These Sulfuri cables look amazingly like fettuccine pasta, while further downstream they look more like capellini pasta,” Fouke said.

The researchers used sterilised pasta forks to collect their samples from Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park in the US.

The team analysed the microbial genomes, evaluated which genes were being actively translated into proteins and deciphered the organism’s metabolic needs, Fouke said.

The team also looked at Sulfuri’s rock-building capabilities, finding that proteins on the bacterial surface speed up the rate at which calcium carbonate — also called travertine — crystallises in and around the cables “one billion times faster than in any other natural environment on Earth,” Fouke said.

Also read | Evidence of water found on Ultima Thule: NASA

The result is the deposition of broad swaths of hardened rock with an undulating, filamentous texture.

“This should be an easy form of fossilised life for a rover to detect on other planets,” Fouke said.

“If we see the deposition of this kind of extensive filamentous rock on other planets, we would know it’s a fingerprint of life,” Fouke said.

“It’s big and it’s unique. No other rocks look like this. It would be definitive evidence of the presences of alien microbes,” he said.

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