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Image: Lost Hammer Spring
McGill University
The Lost Hammer Spring on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's Nunavut Territory may be even more inhospitable than some places on Mars. Yet it hosts microbial life, scientists found.
updated 6/8/2010 12:49:37 PM ET 2010-06-08T16:49:37

A new discovery of bacterial life in a Martian-like environment on Earth suggests our neighboring red planet could also be hospitable to some form of microbial life.

Researchers found methane-eating bacteria that appear to be thriving in a unique spring called Lost Hammer on Axel Heiberg Island in the extreme north of Canada.

This spring is similar to possible past or present springs on Mars, the scientists say, so it hints that microbial life could potentially exist there, too. There is no firm evidence that Mars does or ever did host life, however.

The Lost Hammer spring is extremely salty — so much so that the water doesn't freeze, even though temperatures are below freezing. The water has no consumable oxygen in it, but there are big bubbles of methane that rise to the surface.

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And yet, the researchers found unique anaerobic organisms — creatures that don't need oxygen to survive — thriving in the spring. The hardy organisms most likely breathe sulfate instead of oxygen, the researchers said.

"The Lost Hammer spring is the most extreme subzero and salty environment we've found," said researcher Lyle Whyte, a microbiologist Canada's McGill University.

In fact, the temperatures in this part of Canada are even harsher than those found in many places on Mars.

"There are places on Mars where the temperature reaches relatively warm -10 to 0 degrees and perhaps even above 0ºC," Whyte said, "and on Axel Heiberg it gets down to -50, easy."

And recent data suggests Mars also has methane and frozen water.

"If you have a situation where you have very cold salty water, it could potentially support a microbial community, even in that extreme harsh environment."

The discovery is detailed in the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal.

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